Where was the President? That’s the question many pundits are asking in the aftermath of the congressional supercommittee’s highly publicized failure to reach an agreement by today’s deadline to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit. As the clocked ticked down to the final two weeks of negotiations between Republican and Democratic legislators, Obama was overseas on a 9-day meet-and-greet trip with foreign dignitaries. He returned this past Sunday, just as breaking news stories reported the imminent failure in the supercommittee negotiations. Rather than intervene to broker a last-minute agreement, however, Obama instead stood by as the budget clock for what many described as the last, best chance to negotiate a deficit reduction package wound down.
The President’s decision not to intervene was merely his final act in a three-month budget deficit drama that saw him content to play a minor role, if that. Although not formally part of the supercommittee’s deliberation, Obama did propose his own $3.6 trillion reduction package early in the deficit negotiations. Thereafter, however, Obama appeared to remove himself from the debate, choosing instead to focus on stumping for his jobs legislation, despite clear signs that it does not have the votes to pass Congress. By all accounts, he had few contacts with any of the supercommittee members, particular on the Republican side, and seemed content to let the gang of 12 legislators squabble among themselves without any effort to interject himself into negotiations.
As the talks collapsed, many critics characterized Obama’s lack of participation as a significant failure of leadership. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg captured these sentiments when he chastised the President for failing to intervene: “The president as the chief executive of the country has the responsibility to make things come together. I understand the problem of partisanship. And the jealousies and the pettiness and selfishness that occur at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But in the end, no CEO would send a proposal and just say, well, let’s see what happens. You sent a proposal and then you go fight for it.”
Rather than a failure to lead, however, Obama’s behavior suggests he has learned a valuable political lesson from this past summer’s highly contentious debt default negotiations. You will recall that the nation teetered on the brink of debt default until Obama negotiated a last-minute increase in the debt ceiling, paired with a budget agreement that pleased almost no one, but which passed with bipartisan support from mostly moderates in the House and Senate. That agreement, in addition to cutting federal spending by $2.4 trillion and increasing the debt ceiling by an amount sufficient to last beyond the 2012 elections, also created the supercommittee and charged it with finding an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions by today’s deadline. Rather than reap any political windfall for negotiating a budget deal and averting the debt default, however, Obama instead found himself excoriated by party purists on both the Right and Left. Progressives in a particular were vehement in their belief that Obama had sold out party principles. Many thought he should have invoked the 14th amendment to justify raising the debt ceiling without the need for congressional approval, and then stood strong against Republican objections, even if it meant a constitutional crisis. Instead, they argued, Obama folded (once again!) like a cheap suit.
Almost four months later, Obama faced another negotiating deadline. Clearly he drew the appropriate lesson from this past summer’s debt ceiling debate: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… . Given the failure to reap any rewards within his own party base for finding common ground with Republicans last August, what possible benefit would it have been for Obama to interject himself once again into what was certainly going to be a replay of those negotiations? Indeed, with the 2012 election four months closer, and his reelection prospects still no better than 50/50, and this time with no immediate consequences for a failure by the supercommittee to reach an agreement (already Republicans are threatening to rewrite the “automatic cuts” to defense), it made absolutely no sense for Obama to wade into this fight. Reaching the $1.2 trillion target almost certainly would require significant entitlement reform that would have surely provoked a chorus of cries from the party faithful that Obama had again sacrificed progressive principles on the altar of bipartisan agreement.
Before condemning the President for an ostensible lack of leadership, critics should instead focus on the true culprit behind his decision not to intervene: the purists in his own party who make it so difficult for him to negotiate any concessions that are a necessity for achieving a bipartisan deficit deal. As long as the Democratic Left would prefer principle to compromise, it makes little sense for Obama to risk his political capital in another round of contentious budget negotiations. He realizes as well as anyone that the shepherd cannot lead if the flock refuses to follow.
This was not a failure to lead – it was a choice driven by political necessity dictated by his own party faithful.