Let’s get this straight: The president can’t make a deal with the speaker of the House on the fiscal cliff. He then punts to the Senate Majority and Minority leaders, but alas Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) can’t even come up with a counteroffer. Reid then punts to Vice President Joe Biden, who presumably is more skilled than the president at this sort of thing. One is tempted to ask what President Obama really does all day.

The answer is neatly summed up by Yuval Levin:

The president’s appearance on Meet the Press [Sunday] was downright pathetic in this regard, as have been his various press statements in the past few days. This sort of preening and lecturing from a politician who has basically just failed to do his job is bizarre.


Mr. President, you’re going to sign whatever congress ultimately passes, assuming something passes. Sometimes that’s just how it is for a president, any president. Can we not just accept that? And if the fiscal cliff is followed immediately by the next round of debt-ceiling talks, might we just start those with House-Senate negotiations and have them pass a bill and send it down the street like they’re supposed to, rather than go through weeks of pointless private White House drama and public presidential hectoring about how reasonable Barack Obama is compared to everybody else?

The only quibble I would have is that this conduct is hardly “bizarre.” It’s typical of the narcissistic behavior that this president has exhibited these past four years.

It was telling, as a fellow conservative mentioned to me on Sunday, that in Obama’s Meet the Press interview he declared that the Newtown massacre was the worst day of his presidency. The conservative exclaimed: “It had nothing to do with Obama or his presidency!” She was right, of course. It was the worst day ever for those parents and that community, but Obama’s inserting himself in others’ tragedy reminds us that it is always about Obama — except when it comes to failure or scandal. (For the real worst day of his presidency there are many contenders: Fumbling the grand bargain in 2011; surprising the Israeli prime minister with his “1967 borders” speech; the 2010 election shellacking; the death of four Americans due to his administration’s negligence in Benghazi; etc.).

Bad results are never Obama’s fault; bad things are caused by other people. He is there to remind us he feels more deeply, is more reasonable and is more high minded than the rest of us.

Meanwhile, if we use a mortal standard for rating him and his presidency — say, competence — he doesn’t get a passing grade. At this point every Clinton, Bush or Reagan White House veteran could figure out where the deal is. But if we posit that Obama is anything but dim, then we must conclude Obama either perpetually assumes that his aura will magically melt opposition (his favorite method being a campaign bustrip that only annoys his opponents) or that he never intends to make true compromises (in the case of the fiscal cliff, real entitlement reform). Either way, the result is never a grand or mini-deal. We get no deal and Obama’s scorn for political opponents who won’t take “yes” for an answer. Sanctimony is the operating emotion for this White House.

We see the exact same process now playing out that we saw in the 2011 debt-ceiling deal, aptly documented in Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics. In the end, grown-ups (not including the president) have to do the hard work.

Obama wanted revenue on the table. He got revenue. He then wanted a huge amount of revenue, higher than any serious bipartisan commission or group to date has proposed, and nothing on the entitlement front. He can say as many times as he likes that he met the GOP halfway, but it doesn’t make it so. (If you doubt it, think how much more favorable to the GOP would be the president’s own Simpson-Bowles debt commission proposal.) If Bill Clinton were president we could have had a dozen deals by now on everything from Social Security to tax reform to defense spending. He both wanted to be a maker-of-deals and had the skills to make it happen. Neither can be said of Obama.

The bad news in this is that the president is likely to behave no better in the debt ceiling fight. He is bound and determined, it seems, to avoid making the hard calls on fiscal sobriety. He is not in the business of disappointing the left by containing the size of government. He perhaps has convinced himself that entitlement reform isn’t so urgent, something to be fobbed off on the next Oval Office occupant.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, is onto something in demanding a halt to this Lucy-and-the-football routine. In a written statement last night he suggested:

“The biggest obstacle we face is that President Obama and Majority Leader Reid continue to insist on new taxes that will be used to fund more new spending, not for meaningful deficit reduction. The result is nearly $9 trillion in new debt accumulation over the next decade, which represents virtually no change from current projections. By now, it should be clear to all that secret negotiations are not working. In the new year, the Senate must return to the difficult but necessary process of open, public legislative work that this chamber was conceived to carry out.”

That may not happen in this round. But come the fight on the debt ceiling it seems that is the appropriate avenue for the GOP. Pass a debt ceiling bill complete with entitlement and tax reform. Send it to the Senate and insist Reid and his fellow Democrats do their work. No more closed-door haggling. Pass a bill, send it back to the House and then fight it out. Meanwhile, President Obama can go play golf, which come to think of it might be a positive contribution to the process.