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Right Turn
Posted at 09:30 AM ET, 09/18/2012

Obama’s leadership vacuum

President Obama’s argument for reelection seems to be: 1) the economy is getting better, and 2) if I win I can work with Republicans.

The first argument has been essentially eviscerated by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. The Fed doesn’t come up with a super-charged printing press to flood the economy with dollars, push down bond yields and light a fire under the stock market if we are on the right track. QE3 is an emergency response to an economy that is headed for zero growth or contraction.

As for the second, the idea that if Obama is given four more years he could unlock the stalemate in Washington has been dealt a death blow by Bob Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics.”

The bulk of the book is a step-by-step account of Obama’s unique ability to frustrate, annoy and blindside both Democrats and Republicans throughout the search for a grand bargain to address the debt. By contrast, VP Joe Biden comes across as responsible, digging for spending cuts with Republicans and trying to keep the process on track. (He came up with over $1 trillion in cuts both sides could live with.)

Several aspects of the failed grand bargain negotiations are illuminated:

First and foremost, Obama never understood that tax reform (lowering rates and broadening the base) was the key to the deal while tax increases were its death knell. No matter how many times Republican House leadership told Obama, he never seemed to grasp that just as Obamacare was off the table for him, tax hikes were off the table for Republicans. At a point at which Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) had found a way to unlock the deal — meaningful cuts for tax reform that would actually increase revenue by $800 billion, the president failed to grab the moment. (The only equivalent failure was his obtuseness in the midst of Iran’s Green Revolution when he missed a potential turning point in the history of the Middle East.)

Obama by contrast insisted on “decoupling” extension of Bush tax cuts for the rich from other tax payers, never grasping that was not the route to a deal. Was he ideologically wedded to that goal? Did he not read the situation clearly? If LBJ was the consummate deal-making president, Obama is the quintessential deal-dashing president. You sense that regardless of the debt ceiling, regardless of the election, Obama would be hard-pressed to ever reach a complicated, far reaching agreement with lawmakers.

Second, Woodward also reveals the degree to which the White House confounded its allies. (Rep.Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) was nonplussed when he discovered that the “administration didn’t seem to have a strategy. It was unbelievable. There didn’t seem to be any core principles.”) This is a man who creates chaos by creating a leadership vacuum.

Third, the degree to which Obama frustrated his main negotiating partner, Boehner, is rather breath-taking. One minute he dangles Medicare reform (including increasing the retirement age) and assures Boehner that he understands tax reform for structural entitlement reforms are the heart of the deal ( “I got it. I hear it.”) The next he is striding into the press room to excoriate the Republicans. (Woodward notes that for all his purported public speaking prowess he spewed a great deal of double-talk. On the July 11 press conference, Woodward writes, “It was classic Obama. You had to listen very carefully and read the transcript several times to spot the inconsistencies.” )

Even Negotiations 101 were beyond Obama’s comprehension. Boehner was flabbergasted Obama insisted on daily meetings, “All we were going to do was nick everybody and irritate everyone and not accomplish anything.”

And finally, we see the tragedy of a deal Boehner believed was done (with $800 billion in revenue obtained by tax reform) only to see it fumbled away by a president spooked by the Gang of Six, which had thrown $1.2 trillion in tax increases on the table. Even at the end, Obama pleaded confusion, claiming his $400 billion more in revenue was just a request not a demand. (Boehner is adamant that the president repeatedly said he would “need” $400 billion more in revenue.) Obama had no feel for the negotiating process, when to push and when to seal the deal, when to tell renegades (e.g. the Gang of Six) what they came up with was a no-go.

So in the end the House and Senate leadership on both sides rather rudely pushed him aside and crafted the final debt-ceiling deal (with the super committee). He was a bystander, trying to insist he still had a say. (“I’ve got too sign this bill!”) But everyone knew at this point he’d sign whatever came to his desk, and he did. In the most critical domestic policy development of his presidency, he was relegated to rubber stamping Congress’s work. As Woodward says, “ It was increasingly clear that no one was running Washington.”

And that really is the powerful message of Woodward’s book. The president doesn’t know what he is doing. He is buffeted by events. He commands neither trust nor respect from either party.

For reasons not clear to me, the Romney campaign has failed to grasp the central thread running through Obama’s presidency, from passivity in the Green Revolution to fumbling a debt deal to insisting the embassy attacks have nothing to do with anything but a movie. In all these instances a vacuum created by non-leadership, confusion and inexperience allowed events to get out of hand. In all these instances the United Sates came out the worse for it. Do we really think a second term would be any different?

By  |  09:30 AM ET, 09/18/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign, Budget

 
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