If Obama has shown anything in his two-plus years in the White House, it is a combination of substantive ambition and procedural caution. Add to that an innate distaste for ideological confrontation and his dislike for the demands of the 24/7 news cycle that often rules Washington’s political community.
His advisers argue that his forward thinking, his persistence and his patience have produced desired results and allowed him to achieve notable successes. But they have come at the price of doubts about the strength of his leadership and his commitment to take on the fights that his supporters think are necessary.
The battle over this year’s federal budget is the latest example. For weeks, Republicans have called on the president to get his hands dirty in the struggle to fund the government for the current fiscal year and thereby avoid a government shutdown. For weeks, he resisted. Now, in the past few days, he has dived in.
Obama has summoned House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the two key players on Capitol Hill, to the White House repeatedly for meetings. He has expressed publicly his exasperation that Congress has not acted. He has prodded lawmakers around the table at the White House. And he has left the details to be worked out by his and the other leaders’ staffs.
His advisers see all of this as part of a larger strategy aimed at minimizing potential damage to the economy by keeping the government running and avoiding a partisan blowup that could vastly complicate what everyone expects will be an even tougher set of negotiations over next year’s budget and the future of federal entitlement programs.
Obama’s critics on the right say he has impugned their motives and used the tea party as a red herring to give him an advantage in the battle for public opinion. They argue that he has not yet shown he is serious about tackling the deficit.
Had he been interested in real compromise, they say, he would have done what he did in December, when he quietly put together a deal to extend the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush. “Why wasn’t that the model?” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Thursday. “He could have brought us in in January, February, March and talked to us about this, prior to getting to the expiration point. He didn’t. There wasn’t any interest in doing it.”
Obama’s critics on the left take the opposite view. They fret that he is so committed to avoiding partisan mud fights that he has been unwilling to draw bright lines with Republicans and take the case to the public.