What’s Washington’s main leadership failure that it can’t solve the budget and debt debacle?

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES - From the budget deficit to the debt ceiling limit, political leaders in Washington are struggling to solve some of the biggest economic issues facing the country.

As part of a weekly opinion roundtable, On Leadership invited Governor Mitch Daniels, former Senate leader Tom Daschle, Harvard professor John P. Kotter, former Congressman Slade Gorton, Wharton professor Stuart Diamond, and Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein to analyze what’s wrong with the leadership in Washington that political leaders haven’t been able to solve the U.S. budget and debt ceiling problems.

So what did they say was Washington’s main leadership failure? And what do you think it is? Join in the comments or tweet using #WashingtonsProblem.

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Gov. Mitch Daniels says it’s political leaders’ lack of faith in the American public :

For all their fundamental disagreements, these disputing camps share an implicit, dangerous pessimism about Americans at large: a low regard for their capacity to make sound decisions, either personal or collective. Neither side seems to recognize how demeaning their outlook is toward fellow citizens, nor how fatal the implications are for our democracy if their negative assessments are accurate.

Former Senate leader Tom Daschle says one of the reasons has to do with a breakdown in the art of persuasion :

Dwight Eisenhower once described leadership as the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

He could have been talking about Congress. Having been on both ends of that definition of leadership in scores of policy negotiations over the years, it appears to be getting harder with each congressional session and with each new freshman class. It is especially true regarding past and present negotiations on the federal budget and this year’s drama on raising the debt limit.

Harvard professor John P. Kotter says it’s Washington’s complacency cancer :

The most common cause of complacency is past success. You might think, “But, no rational mind in Washington would call the events of the last three years a big success,” yet that's not the way complacency works. In the past 250 years, Washington has arguably been the most successful place on earth. It’s been the power center of a nation that created the biggest economy in the world, developed the only military superpower, led the way in promoting democratic capitalism, nurtured an environment of innovation, and produced more Nobel laureates than anywhere else. This is really big stuff when you stop to think about it. And this string of achievements, built firmly into the Washington culture, has kept people complacent, even in the wake of recent failures.

Wharton professor Stuart Diamond says it’s that political leaders made fundamental negotiating mistakes :

Impending deadlines like this increase conflict and actually reduce creativity, information processing and agreement quality. What Washington needs to do at this point is decouple the debt limit from the spending debate, increasing the debt limit until December 31. This will maintain a less intrusive deadline but provide time for creative problem-solving in a calmer environment.  

Another negotiation flaw plaguing the debt issue has been how laden the debate is with emotional buzzwords. Emotional people are physically less able to listen, which in turn means they are not often persuadable. They focus less on goals and more on retribution. If Vice President Biden’s task force was unable to calm down, it was right to turn this over to different bipartisan negotiators with fewer hotheads, but they need a better process.

Former Congressman Slade Gorton says it comes down to a lack of presidential leadership:

Any president is the final and sole spokesman for the entire administration. What he says becomes its position. His trumpet is either clear, muted or silent. Not so with the Congress. Speaker Boehner (and Senators Reid and McConnell as well) can lead only to the extent that he can persuade the members of his caucus to follow, a task seriously complicated by the promises they made to their constituents in order to become members of that caucus.

So the necessity for leadership does not end with Barack Obama, but it does begin with him. Only when the president is willing to announce that he understands the depth of our problems and that they require a course change that he had not previously contemplated can he seriously ask Republican leaders to do the same, to join hands with him and to dive into very cold water together.

Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein says the problem is an addiction to brinkmanship :

The problem is that this generation of political leaders has become addicted to brinksmanship. If all that matters is for your side to “win” and if the best way to win is to threaten to blow up the global economy unless you get your way, then of course you don’t fly off to Camp David with a promise not to return until a deal is at hand. What you do is play rope-a-dope for as long you can, then declare that the talks have reached an impasse, you’re not willing to give another inch and walk away. The hope is that the other side eventually caves out of a sense of responsibility for the general welfare. In this game of brinksmanship, the idea is to demonstrate you are willing to be more irresponsible than the other guy, which is the level to which political leadership in American has now degenerated.

What do you think is the fundamental leadership failure? Join in with a comment, or chime in on Twitter using #WashingtonsProblem

 
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