As Congress engages in another round of "beat the clock"—this time over raising the nation's debt ceiling to meet current obligations—one thing has, as the president might say, become "clear." Barack Obama has become increasingly irrelevant to the process.
When word came on Monday that the president had asked for time on television to address the nation, I, like millions of other Americans, assumed he would use the occasion to make news. Presidents request air time to announce what they intend to do about Soviet-installed missiles in Cuba, that they would be sending up major civil rights legislation, that they would be making the first presidential visit to China, or that American Navy SEALs had eliminated Osama bin Laden. Some of us even expected a much wanted and most anticipated budget deal. As has so often proved the case with Obama, such was not to be.
Instead, president used the free air time to do one of two things he does best. He campaigned. He urged his supporters to clog up the telephones and e-mail systems in Congressional offices. As has become his wont, he left unclear precisely what message he wanted them to deliver—other that they were there and did not like Republicans. As he has on so much else, healthcare, the stimulus package, and even the "lead from behind" Libyan adventure, Obama exuded the mien of someone who announces winners of the Academy Awards, rather than as one who decided the outcome. Perhaps to show that their boss was indeed "working" the debt ceiling issue, White House aides leaked that the president was so engaged in the budget talks that he took time away from the other thing at which he excels, fundraising. Listeners were expected to sympathize with the cash collector-in-chief for having foregone a D.C. fundraiser. (Presumably, the money rolled in just the same, perhaps with the president telling well-heeled donors by telephone or by Skype how much he regretted not being able to make the 10 minute limousine drive.)
The president's performance came after three previous attempts to appear part of a process from which he had long been absent. There was the press conference in which Obama chastised Congress for not getting its homework in on time in the fashion of his young daughters. Then came the admonition to "eat our peas" and "pull off the band aid." Last Friday came the all but Nixonian press conference in which Obama twice whined about not getting his calls returned (from House Speaker John Boehner) and for having been stood up at the altar on more than one occasion. (The late former president would have especially liked the manner in which Obama denied that the perceived slights he saw fit to bring up bothered him. No Newt Gingrich upset at having had to exit the back of the plane is he.)
The president's choice of words were particularly odd, given that the stated intention of his "public" presentations was to persuade his opposition to go along with him. Obama's public protestations did, however, help him attain a goal that he may consider more important, demonstrating to himself at least—and to his remaining acolytes—that he is indeed the smartest person in the room. If only his negotiating partners were as worthy. [See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama.]
One clearly is. During the 1990s, the last time Congress and the president were at loggerheads over spending levels and budgets, one of John Boehner's colleagues described him as the steadiest person throughout the process. (Boehner's buddy went so far as to call the future speaker the "only adult" in the then House GOP leadership.)
Boehner has remained every bit as calm and as steady throughout the current negotiations. Rather than seek to gloss over internecine party differences, Boehner chose to give other players on his team a say—in public as well as in private. (Democratic divisions, long simmering, burst into the open on websites and on MSNBC.) Boehner, unlike Obama, then advanced a program of his own. It has become the plan against which the Senate will shape its own and to which the other chamber has to respond. Not bad for someone who, as he said, heads only one of the three entities that must agree on a budget: the House, the Senate, and the president.
So as Senators and Congressmen negotiate across the Capitol, with the administration trying to elbow its way in, the nation will meet its obligations. And Obama will sign whatever he is presented, lest he be held to account for the havoc that would otherwise ensue. (Count on him to ignore last minute pleas from the nation and MSNBC that he act on his own, citing out of context language of the 14th amendment.)
After the dust has settled, the one constant that will remain is the mounting unemployment rate to which Obama has also paid scant attention and offered no program. At its last count, the number stood at 9.2 percent. Mindful of their own reelection prospects, Congressmen and Senators will be in no hurry to assume joint custody of it with him. While he may not have "broken it" (at least all by himself), he has come to own it.