Leon Panetta served in Washington with nine presidents, starting with Lyndon Johnson. He has been a member of Congress, Office of Management and Budget director, White House chief of staff, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and secretary of defense — the last two under President Obama. He is a man who knows Washington and knows how to choose his words. So Panetta’s implicit rebuke of the president’s hands-off approach to the budget crisis at a breakfast Monday was striking.
Indeed, implicit may be an understatement. Asked repeatedly whether he was being correctly understood as critical of President Obama, Panetta was careful to assert that “I don’t want to put it all on the president” and that there is “enough blame to go around.” But he did not spare Obama.
“We govern either by leadership or crisis. . . . If leadership is not there, then we govern by crisis,” Panetta said at the start of the session, sponsored by The Wall Street Journal. “Clearly, this town has been governing by crisis after crisis after crisis.”
Which raised the obvious question: What does this say about the president’s leadership?
Several observations ensued. “This town has gotten a lot meaner in the last few years.” Relationships have deteriorated. Redistricting into safe seats hasn’t helped. Neither has the explosion of money in campaigns, or the elimination of earmarks. (Negotiating one Clinton budget, Panetta recalled, “I think I sold about six bridges to get there.”)
Then, to Obama. “This president — he’s extremely bright, he’s extremely able, he’s somebody who I think certainly understands the issues, asks the right questions, and I think has the right instincts about what needs to be done for the country.”
Next came the “but” — without a name but with a clear message. “You have to engage in the process. This is a town where it’s not enough to feel you have the right answers. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and you’ve got to really engage in the process . . . that’s what governing is all about.”
Bloomberg’s Al Hunt asked Panetta how Clinton would have handled the current situation differently. “We were negotiating up to the last minute in the Oval Office” before the 1995 shutdown, recounted Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff. “Some of us were nervous that Bill Clinton was bending over backwards to try to see if he could get a deal.”
Panetta’s image of clustering in the Oval Office with all the key players — Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, plus Clinton and Vice President Gore — offered a vivid contrast to the current state of play, with talks having collapsed between the White House and House Speaker John Boehner, and with the 11th-hour action shifted to Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.
To some extent, the reporters in the room seemed more forgiving of the circumstances in which the president finds himself. Jackie Calmes of the New York Times noted that the Panetta-envisioned budget deal was illusory because Republicans refuse to consider new tax revenue. Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times observed that the White House would argue that its previous efforts at schmoozing and deal-making had fizzled.
“Just because you’ve engaged in some set of negotiations and they haven’t gone anywhere, for one reason or another there’s been a breakdown, is no reason to walk away from the table,” Panetta said. “In this town, you’ve got to stay with it. You’ve got to stay at it.”
The solution, Panetta added, is not “some razzle-dazzle supercommittee or group of muckety-mucks from the outside world. That hasn’t worked. They are going to have to do it in the context of the conference of the budget.” Locked in a room, if need be, until differences are resolved, as happened with the 1990 budget summit at Andrews Air Force Base. “I spent three months at Andrews Air Force Base going through this crap,” Panetta recalled.
As to the notion that any proposal associated with Obama was inherently toxic to Republicans, Panetta said, “If the president, for whatever reason, feels he can’t do it because the Republicans don’t want to confront him, then he ought to be willing to delegate that responsibility to someone who can do it.”
I’ve got a stellar candidate in mind. His name is Leon Panetta. He seems awfully happy back home in Monterey, Calif. But he also remembers the way to Andrews — and what it takes to get things done once you arrive.