A Perception of Failure


Published November 24, 2011, issue of December 02, 2011.

The unpardonable failure of the members of the congressional supercommittee to resolve their differences and actually do what it takes to govern is largely their own fault. Not that many members didn’t embrace the herculian task with rigor and good intentions. Unfortunately, some of the Republicans — and yes, the intransigence was found mostly on that side of the aisle — refused to budge. If the founding fathers charged with writing a constitution had a few Jon Kyls in their midst, aided by a couple more Grover Norquists whispering in their ears outside the Philadelphia statehouse, we might still be waving the Articles of Confederation at political rallies.

So we’ll stipulate that the blame lies with Congress. But what about the president?

Even among his erstwhile supporters, perhaps especially among his erstwhile supporters, there’s a lingering question about whether he could or should have done more. Yes, this was a congressional effort. But he’s the president, after all! Half of the members of the committee came from his party! Think Lyndon Johnson would have taken such a passive role? Or Ronald Reagan?

To answer is to first acknowledge that the committee members apparently didn’t want President Obama’s participation. “The message from both Republican and Democratic members of the group was that presidential involvement could only be counterproductive,” writes Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post, in a sad but true reflection of the nature of political demonization at the moment.

Nonetheless, Obama did try to shape the debate, submitting his own proposal to the supercommittee, and before then, seeking to strike a “grand bargain” with House Speaker John Boehner, who ran scared from his own rendezvous with a leadership moment. The record shows that the man in the White House did propose the kind of broad moves that his supporters yearn for and his detractors do their best to suppress. But he could have done more.

And that’s why Obama’s leadership on the economy, the most pressing challenge of our day, seem so unsatisfying.

Partly, it’s the missed opportunities that rattle so. After appointing his own panel to deal with deficit reduction, headed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, Obama never did what it would take to push their wise, bipartisan ideas through Congress.

But it’s more than that. The old adage that politics is perception is never as true as when dealing with the economy, because it’s so fundamentally dependent on confidence in the future and trust in government. In the dark days of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt brilliantly used his cheerful optimism to rally the public, but he also knew how to ruthlessly navigate the levers of power in a polarized, demoralized Washington. It is not enough for this president to release fine, balanced proposals and even to compromise much more deeply than his rigid rivals. He’s got to close the deal. He’s done it with health care reform, the automobile industry rescue, and in his deft handling of foreign affairs. Why not in the arena that matters most?

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