A reader writes:
1) If you buy into this leadership model, recognize that Obama has applied it to budget negotiations. All your exhortations to get behind Bowles-Simpson need to be viewed in the context of Obama’s stated goal of avoiding what Ezra Klein later called the paradox of power – that if the president advocates for something, the opposition must be against it. Thus his restraint in early 2011: “This is not a matter of you go first or I go first,” he said before describing a goal of “everybody … ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over” and now too, as Beutler nicely illustrates.
2) This style of leadership is potentially powerful but does not preclude the need to fight an intransigent opposition by maximizing leverage when you’ve got it. In my view, Obama failed at this. I can’t imagine Clinton signing on to sequestration in the first place, or letting it happen. By constantly postponing showdown Obama has basically lost the budget wars.
I do think his caution with Bowles-Simpson was a terribly wasted opportunity to clarify his essentially centrist position with voters – thereby creating a “permission structure” to get centrist Republicans to back it. It would have been a risk because there are almost no moderate Republicans left, but Obama’s reluctance to take risks – to put some audacity into his hope – has been alternately a strength and a weakness. He has gotten nowhere on long-term debt anyway. Why not put down a rhetorical marker that is easy to understand?
But look: we have an end to torture, the winding down of two disastrous wars, a sea-change on marriage equality, universal healthcare, declining deficits, a real possibility of immigration reform, and a recovery other countries would dream of. And the failure to tackle the revenue crunch and entitlement costs (beyond experiments in cost-control in Obamacare) is not truly a function of the president. Maybe he should have let all the tax cuts disappear on January 1. But that would have been irresponsible.
When one side in a struggle is prepared to be irresponsible endlessly, what’s a president to do? About as much as he has.