Ruth Marcus
Columnist November 22, 2011

Congress fails. The can is kicked. Cue the finger-pointing at President Obama for failing to lead.

Count me out, this time around.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

The collapse of the supercommittee is not Obama’s fault. If he had pushed and prodded and cajoled and horse-traded, the result likely would have been the same. Perhaps even worse, in the sense that the partisan digging-in might have been even more entrenched.

For all the eleventh-hour, “where-was-Obama?” moaning, the bipartisan congressional directive to the White House as the supercommittee did its work was simple: Back off.

That’s right. The message from both Republican and Democratic members of the group was that presidential involvement could only be counterproductive. The more a particular approach was associated with the president, they argued, the harder it would be for Republicans to embrace it. Anything that looked like an Obama “win” would have been unacceptable to Republicans in an election cycle.

Amid the predictable clamor about presidential absence, it’s hard to remember that Obama submitted his own proposal to the supercommittee — much to the consternation of some Democratic members.

The president’s plan was disappointingly timid and riddled with accounting gimmicks, but it went far beyond the $1.2 trillion in savings that the supercommittee failed to produce. Somehow I don’t recall Republicans at the time praising Obama for bravely stepping forward to lead.

The blame game is a dreary enterprise, but if we’re destined to play yet another round, let’s go back and at least take a more nuanced view of the ledger.

The president’s pre-debt-ceiling record on dealing with the deficit is not attractive. He was late to the table when members of Congress were pressing for legislation to create a debt commission.

After that effort failed — a result of unconscionable flip-flopping by Republicans who backed the idea until Obama did — the president moved to appoint his own panel, chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. When the group edged astonishingly close to the necessary supermajority to guarantee that its recommendations would get an up-or-down vote in Congress, the president did nothing to help.

Then, most infuriatingly, once the commission delivered its report, Obama punted, neither endorsing the recommendations nor offering an alternative.

As Bowles, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, told a Wall Street Journal conference recently, “My belief is that most of the members of the economic team strongly supported it. Like every White House, there’s a small cabal of people that surround the president that he trusts and works with, and I believe it was those Chicago guys, the political team that convinced him that it would be smarter for him to wait and let [House Budget Committee Chairman] Paul Ryan go first, and then he would look like the sensible guy in the game.”

The president finally engaged under the gun of the debt ceiling, and for this he deserves credit. In his quixotic quest for a grand bargain, Obama displayed a willingness to take on entitlement spending, sending his liberal base into a predictable tizzy.

The bargain went bust, but largely because House Speaker John Boehner could not deliver on the $800 billion in tax revenue he dangled.

Once the supercommittee launched, Obama retreated except for the September submission, delivered with a threat to veto any deal that would cut Medicare without also raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

Some of the post-failure Obama-blaming has focused on that statement. This is silly. Obama’s threat reflected a reasonable demand for shared sacrifice and, in any event, was superfluous. A cuts-only deal was not going to get to his desk.

Are the president and his political advisers lamenting the supercommittee’s failure? No. For them, failure was a perfectly fine option that reinforced their do-nothing Congress message. But this is different from asserting that the responsibility for failure rests with the president.

Listening to his threat Monday night to veto any effort to defuse the trigger mechanism, I wondered whether weighing in so forcefully a week earlier might have helped concentrate the congressional mind.

Perhaps, but what’s clear is that committee Democrats moved awfully far in the name of compromise. They offered more in Medicare cuts than Simpson-Bowles did — or than Obama did with Boehner, for that matter — and accepted less in the way of tax increases than those two proposals.

For their part, Republicans moved off their position of complete intransigence on taxes. Then they refused to budge. No wonder they’ve moved to the convenient default: blame Obama.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com