Whether it was health care or the deficit or now the debt ceiling, direct encounters between Obama and his Republican opposite numbers have always ended badly for the president. Yes, the president faces unusually extreme and intransigent opposition. But that's a description of the difficulty, not an excuse for failure. Presidents win negotiations when they can mobilize the public behind them. That was Ronald Reagan's secret weapon in 1981. It has never been Barack Obama's. And the results are as we all see.
I agree, I'm afraid.
I know Obama wants to get things done and also believes that taking a strong stand in advance of legislation can prevent that. But without the clarity of rhetorical leadership, you end up in the miasma of legislative minutiae that leaves the impression that Washington has not changed at all. The result, of course, is that it hasn't. I argued last December that Obama should have defined the second half of his term by embracing Bowles-Simpson and leading the charge for fiscal responsibility:
The key to Obama winning the next two years politically (he's already won them economically by getting a GOP-backed second stimulus) is to use his next key speech to make one clear commitment: he will do everything in his power to end the long-term debt by the end of his first term. He will do it in part by sweeping tax reform and simplification – the sugar that will make the medicine go down. He should eschew any classic SOTU laundry list and go for the central, simple message, repeated again and again and again with as much insistence and regularity as "hope and change" in 2008. The gist:
"We will not pass on this debt to our children. Not on my watch. Not at this time. We must get past partisan bickering and solve this once and for all. I've proved I can work out a compromise with the Republicans. We now need an even grander compromise – to end the debt within a generation, restore long-term confidence, and simplify and reform our insane tax code."
Instead he played too clever by half. He has now given the speech, too late. Chait is on the same page:
Obama clearly faces a perception problem. Republicans may complain that he's walked away from deals, but they really think he's a pushover who will cede more and more ground the harder and longer they push. That's a dangerous position to be in on the verge of a high stakes game of chicken. It encourages the Republicans to push the envelope farther and farther — even to walk away from a deal they regard as a win in search of an even better win.
Andrew Sprung's related thoughts:
What would have felt like leadership from a Democratic president in 2011? Outline a deficit reduction/tax reform plan that included new stimulus at the outset, backloaded spending cuts and at least $2 trillion in new revenue over ten years. Refuse definitively, early and often to tie deficit reduction talks to the debt ceiling; insist early, loud and often that the debt ceiling must be raised unconditionally, and threaten to use the Constitutional option if it weren't. Say to the GOP: I'm ready and willing to negotiate – call me when you're ready to consider revenue increases. Eschew high-drama deadlines, and make it clear that the Bush tax cut expiration date is the endgame.