When the history of the 2012 fiscal cliff debate is written, conspicuously absent will be any mention of robust presidential leadership to avert the impending financial crisis. Whatever the president believes was the basis for his reelection, surely he cannot think he was given another term to simply be, as he has been, a mere observer of national crises.
Observers can be important, in elections for instance. They monitor to ensure the process is fair and proceeds according to established standards. But they have no responsibility for taking an active role to determine the outcome of the election. Similarly, football referees call penalties and manage the clock, but they don’t take the field for offensive or defensive purposes.
In legislative bodies, it’s possible for individuals to play similarly passive roles, with little negative repercussions, as long as one votes and doesn’t create a scandal. President Obama perfected this non-engagement in the Illinois state senate, voting present the majority of the time.
Now as president, however, Barack Obama appears to have had difficulty inhabiting his role as “the decider,” as President George W. Bush termed himself. Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics illustrates this dynamic in the August 2011 debt ceiling fight, and it perfectly captures the president’s failure of leadership now.
In conversations with senior White House and Capitol Hill staffers, Woodward paints a picture of a president adrift, unfocused, and unable to commit to specific policy proposals, direct the White House policy process, or negotiate with House Speaker John Boehner on a debt ceiling compromise. He even managed to offend Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi by his bullheaded insistence on unhelpful provocation, and his inability to work for a meaningful, mutually-disagreeable compromise. Most amazingly, in Woodward’s retelling, he even manages to make these notoriously uncompromising congressional leaders seem reasonable, no small feat.
History seems to be repeating itself here. Then, as now, the president offers a square political solution to a round economic problem: he campaigns for increasing the marginal tax rates of the wealthiest 2 percent, even though all economists recognize this would do nothing to solve our long-term fiscal problems. The president has yet offer a viable plan with specific details, just slogans about fairness.