One thing that Republicans and Democrats seem able to agree upon is that President Obama’s shocking absence from any part in the supercommittee talks nearly assured its failure. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) blames Obama. At the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council, the Democratic co-chair of the president’s debt commission Erskine Bowles was exceptionally critical of Obama’s lack of leadership, beginning with the State of the Union address:
AUDIENCE QUESTION: . . . How surprised were you that your commission gave the president tremendous coverage to do something, and it wasn’t even mentioned in the State of the Union?
MR. BOWLES: If you think you were surprised, you should have looked at us. I negotiated the budget for President Clinton. And every investment banker will tell you the key to success is knowing your client and defining success up front. So, I knew what success was on his part, and I could go in there and negotiate the deal.
I did not know President Obama, and neither did Alan. So we spent a tremendous amount of time with him and his economic team up-front defining success. And we negotiated a deal that got a majority of Republicans to vote for it, so he had plenty of cover on the other side. It also exceeded every single one of the goals that he had given us.
I fully expected them to grab hold of this. If it had been President Clinton, he would have said, “God, I created this, this is wonderful. It was all my idea.”
So we were really surprised. 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 Paul Ryan go first, and then he would look like the sensible guy in the game.
We then expected, before the State of the Union, that when he did the stimulus, that that would be a great time to say not only, look, we’re going to do this to get the economy moving forward, but we have to do it within the context of long-term fiscal reform and responsibility. And he didn’t.
If you remember the State of the Union, he talked about the need for this country to invest in education and infrastructure and high-value-added research to be able to compete in a knowledge-based global economy. And he’s right about that. But he left off a part, that we have to do it in a fiscally responsible way. We live in a world of limited resources, and limited resources mean choices and priorities.
The Post’s Robert Samuelson echoes that view: “He has the bully pulpit, but he hasn’t used it.” Quoting from an Obama interview with ABC’s Jake Tapper, Samuelson calls the president’s responses to specific questions on his plans for debt reduction “noncommittal gibberish.”
The supercommittee is not so much a failure of the legislative branch as it is of the president's ability to lead the country. Each side in Congress represented its constituents well. It is, however, a very good argument indeed for dumping Obama. As Samuelson puts it, “The president won’t talk specifics, but government consists of specifics. The reason we cannot have a large budget deal is that Americans haven’t been prepared for one. The president hasn’t educated them, and so they can’t support what they don’t understand.”
Republicans and Democrats in Congress should be crystal-clear: The president’s been AWOL from the most important domestic challenge we face. Frankly, I suspect that a stronger Democratic president would have been able to broker a deal. Actually, a stronger and more courageous president would have embraced Simpson-Bowles. But not Obama. Maybe we should get a president who doesn’t run overseas or finger-point but who leads.