President Obama got a wake-up call this morning from an unexpected source — the mainstream media. In multiple news and editorial pieces, the press took the president and the Democrats to task for intransigence and irresponsibility in the fiscal cliff negotiations.
The Post editorial board, which endorsed Obama in part because “the president understands the urgency of the problems as well as anyone in the country and is committed to solving them in a balanced way,” now warns: “Since his reelection, Mr. Obama has fueled a campaign-style effort to pressure Republicans to give ground on taxes. That’s fine, but it won’t be enough. At some point, he has to prepare the American people — and his own supporters most of all — for the ‘hard decisions’ required to put the country on a sound financial footing. That means spending cuts, it means entitlement reform, it means compromise, it means a balanced solution that will please neither House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Only one person is in a position to make it happen.”
The Post’s editorial board is not alone. USA Today’s ed board also cautions that Democrats need to get serious on entitlement reform: “During Monday’s briefing at the White House, press secretary Jay Carney repeated the theme: ‘We should address the drivers of the deficit, and Social Security is not currently a driver of the deficit — that’s an economic fact.’ Well, saying it’s a fact doesn’t make it so.” Echoing Republicans’ current complaint, the USA Today editorial board asks, “How exactly do Democrats expect Republicans to bend on their destructive refusal to raise taxes if Democrats won’t bend on their destructive refusal to trim unsustainable benefit programs?”
News reports have also picked up on the president’s decision to campaign rather than negotiate and Democrats’ perhaps fateful decision to dig in their heels on entitlement cuts. In a revelatory moment, Jay Carney insisted: “Only inside the Beltway do people think that sitting in a room for a photo spray will solve problems. I don’t think there is a lot of faith that a bunch of people sitting around a table in a room are going to solve problems on behalf of the American people . . . if those sitting around the table aren’t also communicating and engaging with the American people.” Thunk.
That is precisely the attitude that will doom a deal and which resulted in the collapse of the grand bargain talks last year. The public is divided, and the liberal base (which will dutifully generate e-mails and calls) holds little sway with Republicans who were returned to D.C. precisely because they promised to check Obama’s liberal overreach. Moreover, the public does not articulate detailed instructions complete with intricate legislative compromises, which are essential to deal-making. The notion of going back to the campaign trail, as The Post reported, only makes a deal more difficult to obtain. (“The president’s public relations gambit escalated an already tense negotiating atmosphere in Washington, as Republican leaders denounced the move as a ‘campaign’ ploy aimed at bypassing congressional leaders.”)
Obama’s conduct so far bespeaks of a man still determined to crush rather than bargain with his opponents. It suggests a man who still has only one true skill, campaigning. And it further suggests he didn’t fully understand that the public chose divided government so that neither side would get its way entirely.
Now it is early yet so perhaps, as I have noted, Obama is just going through the motions. However, in doing so he is leading his base on, and down a blind alley, foolishly getting them wedded to the idea they can have it all their way. Even more dangerous, Democratic infatuation with going over the cliff will make negotiations even harder, and may well spook the markets.
Obama would lose face if he cancelled his campaign rally. But he would do well to be restrained in tone and then hustle back to D.C. where, sorry Mr. President, leaders lead and the “inside” game is what leads to a positive legacy.