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.

President Barack Obama speaks in the Brady Briefing room at the White House after the U.S. Senate voted to end government shutdown and raise the dept limit on October 16, 2013.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Oct. 16, 2013, 6:12 p.m.

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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