The headline of Jackie Calmes’s “White House Memo” today in the New York Times is a source of great consternation and agitation for me. “President on Sidelines in Critical Battle Over Debt Ceiling” reflects the Beltway meme that President Obama is invisible in this epic fight over raising the debt ceiling. That he was pushed off the stage by Congress to get this done. As the chatter in the echo chamber reinforced itself, folks glossed over or forgot that the president ordered Congress to come up with a plan.
At a dramatic, post-market-close news conference at the White House Friday, Obama announced that the grand bargain he and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had been working on for weeks had collapsed. Clearly exasperated, the president issued a command to Congress.
So here’s what we’re going to do. We have now run out of time. I told Speaker Boehner, I’ve told Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, I’ve told Harry Reid, and I’ve told Mitch McConnell I want them here at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow. We have run out of time. And they are going to have to explain to me how it is that we are going to avoid default. And they can come up with any plans that they want and bring them up here and we will work on them. The only bottom line that I have is that we have to extend this debt ceiling through the next election, into 2013.
And ever since, we’ve been watching the messy machinations on Capitol Hill with bemusement and increasing alarm.
Obama can’t win, it seems. Calmes writes today, “Mr. Obama is in danger of seeming a spectator at one of the most critical moments of his presidency.” Yet, last week Peggy Noonan declared, “It is time for the president to get out of the way.” Obama is not perfect. Watching how he goes about governing is akin to riding in the front seat of a roller coaster without a lap bar. But at no point do I ever think he’s disengaged or been invisible.
As we saw with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the ending of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and even the secret talks between Obama and Boehner over a big deal on the debt ceiling, this president by and large eschews theatrics for getting stuff done. And this drives people crazy.
For better or worse, we have a president who firmly believes that Congress is a co-equal branch of government. Just as the Founders envisioned. Those 535 people pass legislation and send it to the president for his signature or veto. Of course, the president can propose bills and push priorities. But over the last decade, the American people and Congress itself seem to want an all-powerful executive who tells Congress what he wants and how. And judging by all the whinging from members of Congress about the president not telling them what he wants and how, they seem perfectly content to be viewed as staff.
If by Tuesday, Aug. 2, Congress has not passed a bill or if it has put forth one the president can’t sign, it will be incumbent upon him to take control to save the nation’s economy, assuming lasting damage hasn’t already been done. And if or when he does, there better not be a complaint from anyone.