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Obama Wins! Big Whoop. Can He Lead? Obama Wins! Big Whoop. Can He Lead?

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White House

Obama Wins! Big Whoop. Can He Lead?

With an eye to history, will the president leverage his victory to score a debt-busting deal with the GOP? Doubt it.

Barack Obama is a winning president. Will he be remembered as a great one?(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

photo of Ron Fournier
October 16, 2013

Just as he did to John McCain in 2008 and to Mitt Romney in 2012, President Obama defeated a lame Republican political team. The GOP's right wing foolishly shuttered the government and threatened default in exchange for an unreasonable and unattainable concession: Scrap Obamacare. He refused. The GOP caved.

It was all so predictable. Not quite so obvious is Obama's response. Faced now with the choice between partisan politics and a risky high ground, the president has an opportunity to leverage this "victory" for a long-term budget deal that raises taxes and tames entitlements. Obama won. Now can he lead?

Does he have the guts to anger liberal backers with a budget deal on Social Security and Medicare?

 

Is he willing to engage sincerely with Republicans?

Does he want a legacy beyond winning two elections and enacting a health care law that, judging by its horrendous launch, may never live up to its promise?

If the answer to those questions is "yes," Obama has hidden his intentions well.

One thing the past two weeks has done is undermine the White House's two most common excuses for failure.

"There is nobody in the GOP to negotiate with."Well, that's not true. The two-week crisis revealed any number of conservative Republicans with a pragmatic streak, from Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, who risked his seat to deal, to House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, who floated a compromise. You can argue that today's Republicans are more extreme and divided than any party in decades, but you can't say that fruitful negotiations are impossible. That is, unless you don't want a budget deal.

"There is no magic wand for presidential leadership."This one is popular with liberal journalists and professors who accuse Obama's critics of inflating the powers of the presidency. While the executive is only one branch of government, Obama is not as weak as his supporters claim. He just kicked the GOP's butt. Why do Obama's apologists deflate the executive branch's limitations? Maybe they don't want a budget deal.

Count on Obama's liberal chorus to take a victory lap, rubbing Republicans' noses in defeat. Their next step will be to discourage the president from engaging with the GOP on a big budget deal. In addition to the excuses above, they will make the patently false claim that red ink is no longer a national problem. They will repeat an Obama talking point -- "our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years" -- that is both technically wrong and selectively misleading. The deficit is indeed shrinking, comparative pace notwithstanding, but the nation's incredible debt load is not. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office's 2013 Long-Term Budget Outlook shows that the $16 trillion federal debt -- already high by historical standards -- will continue to grow even under some optimistic assumptions about future spending restraint. Already, the debt is 73 percent of the economy's annual output, and CBO projects it expanding to an astounding, practically unfathomable 100 percent of GDP by 2038. The longer we wait, the harder it gets.

Listen and watch the president. If he declares victory over the GOP or plays down the deficit problem, he is not serious about leading the country out of the fiscal and political wilderness.

There is already a lack of seriousness in the air. On Tuesday, the president declared immigration reform to be his top priority after the fiscal crisis. It's a curious choice, given the magnitude of the debt and the durability of the size-of-government debate. Does Obama really think immigration is a more serious problem? Or is it merely the best political issue for Democrats?

It is tempting to assume that Obama has abandoned any hope of governing and is obsessed instead on Democrats seizing control of the House next year, an unlikely occurrence given the GOP's structural advantages. "We can't govern," a senior White House aide told me, "without the House." Obama's immigration message is modeled suspiciously on his fiscal-crisis talking points. Blaming House Speaker John Boehner for preventing immigration from coming up for a vote in the past, Obama said Tuesday, "The only thing right now that's holding it back is, again, Speaker Boehner not willing to call the bill on the floor of the House of Representatives."

It looks like Obama plans to walk Republicans into another box canyon, this one of his making.

A wiser course would be to humbly accept the GOP's terms of surrender and immediately leverage his advantage to end the budget fight that has polarized Washington. While Republicans are licking their wounds, Obama could announce an intense schedule of high-level budget meetings – daily, ideally. Rather than lecture lawmakers publicly, he could privately put his offer of modest entitlement cuts back on the table and declare his openness to do more. He could listen to Republicans – not for hours, but for days, if necessary.

If he listens closely, he might hear what GOP House leaders told me last spring. They were open to exchanging entitlement reform for new taxes – $250 billion to $300 billion, or approximately the amount that Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania proposed raising over 10 years under the guise of "tax reform." That is a small price to pay for a Democratic president to enact entitlement cuts, shielding the GOP from a potent wedge issue. Of course, this would require Obama to actually sign entitlement cuts into law rather than just propose them, a step it's not clear he's willing to take.

The White House likes to conflate the GOP's public bargaining positions with their privately held ones. The president and his team may not understand the difference, which I doubt, or they're looking for excuses to avoid a budget deal. Pragmatic, good-governance Democrats harbor such doubts about their president.

"We can govern by either leadership or crisis," said Leon Panetta, a former Democratic congressman who served in Washington with nine presidents. "If leadership is not there, then we govern by crisis."

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who attended a breakfast meeting with Panetta and several other reporters Monday, reported that the former leader of the CIA and Pentagon under Obama was questioning his ex-boss' leadership. "You have to engage in the process," Panetta said. "This is a town where it's not enough to feel you have the right answers. You've got to roll up your sleeves and you've got to really engage in the process … that's what governing is all about."

A Democrat close to Panetta said the Californian was speaking generally about issues he has had with the president's lack of leadership inside Washington – most of them not yet aired publicly – rather than merely about this month's clash, which Panetta mostly lays at the feet of the GOP.

Another high ranking Democrat with ties to both the White House and Capitol Hill pointed to the first failed days of Obamacare. While Republicans look "insane," he said, Obama is making Democrats look "incompetent."

"It's all about winning with this White House," said the Democrat who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution from the White House. "It's not about governing. It's not about holding people accountable. It's not about solving big problems."

If Obama could finagle a budget deal out of the GOP, voters would almost certainly welcome the break from gridlock. His declining approval ratings might reverse. Higher ratings might help him rescue his stalled agenda (including immigration reform) and a wilting legacy. Obama was right to call the GOP's bluff: Bowing to their demands would have been poor politics for him and a poor precedent for future politics. But the country gained nothing beyond another short-term deal that punts the long-term problem. Now what?

Okay, we get it: Obama is a winning politician. What's in serious doubt is whether he will be remembered as a successful president.

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