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Posted at 01:26 PM ET, 11/21/2011

Why didn’t Obama lead on the debt supercommittee?

Lots of good analysis on the failure and fallout of the deficit-cutting supercommittee today. Ezra Klein makes a new and politically very salient point: One implication of the supercommittee's collapse could be another hit to economic recovery. Citing the failure of the negotiators to agree on extending the payroll tax deduction and unemployment benefits, Klein notes that economic growth, already anemic, could be further compromised.

While this latest debacle makes all the players -- and indeed the "play" itself, our government -- look pathetic, I think its political implications are most profound for the White House. President Obama decided, after the debt-ceiling debacle, that not only was a grand bargain an illusion, but that Congress would fail even on the more limited task before the supercommittee of finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction to avoid  the automatic cuts called for in the August compromise. So, he stayed away from the negotiations and pre-placed them into an emerging strategy of running against extremists in Congress.

Obama's failure to lead on this issue is symptomatic of the larger weakness plaguing his presidency. Obama, to my mind, is clearly correct on the deficit issue, as he is on so many others. He has signaled a willingness to embrace a mixture of tax increases and entitlement cuts, a stand that enjoys the overwhelming support of the American people. But he has failed to educate and lead the American people to the conclusion that his approach is essential to strengthen the economy in the short and long-terms.

This criticism, which isn't new, infuriates the White House. They cite, with good reason, the complete and repeated intransigence of the Tea Party Republicans to consider new revenues of any kind, and the more cynical view of some "establishment" Republicans that it's okay to make the economy collateral damage in the effort to bring down Obama. It's all true, but it simply reinforces his weakness.

What lies behind the president's repeated failure to give the country a narrative about where it needs to go? (I have commented on this several times in previous posts.) Imagine if the president had used his two speeches to the nation this summer to actually define the issue. What if he had pulled a Perot and actually used charts to show the necessity and wisdom of the “grand bargain”? And what if he had gone on a non-stop campaign to sell it all over the country? At a minimum, now, he would be better off politically, and perhaps so would the country, assuming his intense, focused efforts resulted in a deal.

The reasons for the president's odd passivity may lie in his view of politics. Chris Matthews’ recent rant against Obama is instructive. Obama, Matthews says, hasn't given the country anything "to root for."  The president believes in politics as a virtual world where e-mails and videos substitute for meetings and alliance building.

This is an interesting criticism, and it mirrors an insight Malcolm Gladwell made about the difference between social networks and old-fashioned political networks. Social networks are about "weak ties," Gladwell writes, where it is possible to have thousands of "friends" but no one who is really committed to sacrifice or even work very hard for your cause. Real political fights require real organizing, real leadership, real sacrifice, and not just a bunch of people chatting about the problem. Obama seems oblivious to this. Perhaps it's time to put down the Blackberry and lead from the front.

By  |  01:26 PM ET, 11/21/2011

 
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