Despite what you might have heard, Barack Obama is not to blame for the failure of the so-called “super committee” to reach a debt deal. That the president should have exercised greater “leadership” has become a standard talking point both on the right and among the “everyone’s to blame for a broken system” commentariat. But that line of criticism simply isn’t connected to political reality.
Part of the problem is a belief that has developed in recent decades in the omnipotence of the president and the bully pulpit.
As my colleague Ken Walsh notes,
Americans expect their president to push the system into action and, through persuasion, cajolery, threats, intimidation or personal diplomacy, get things done on Capitol Hill.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg got it right when he told reporters, in reaction to the committee's collapse, "It's the chief executive's job to bring people together and to provide leadership. I don't see that happening."
But that presupposes that all policy gaps are bridgeable. Some simply aren’t. In this specific instance, the chasm was too wide. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has neatly summarized it, the super sticking point was: “Democrats wanted the rich to pay more in taxes towards deficit reduction, and Republicans wanted the rich to pay less in taxes towards deficit reduction.”
When Republicans finally allowed for some increased tax revenues, they were conditioned on making permanent the Bush tax cuts. In other words the GOP was willing to close around $300 billion in loopholes in exchange for adding $4 trillion to the deficit in the form of enshrining the Bush tax rates.
Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum has a helpful set of four questions any critics of Obama’s leadership here should answer. The second one is the key: Critics should “explain whether they think Republicans would ever, under any circumstances, have accepted a deal with a net tax increase.”
No one who is both sentient and has watched politics in recent years thinks that they would. So the leadership that Bloomberg and others would have Obama exercise would involve him either talking the GOP into becoming Democrats or himself capitulating to their demands. (This latter option would, of course, have set many of the same commentators off on a round of exposition about what a weak leader Obama is for having surrendered to the GOP, again.)
The utter hollowness of the GOP position is underscored by the fact that Republicans who criticize Obama for not taking a more direct role in the super committee’s deliberations attacked him for undermining the committee when he released his deficit reduction proposal (h/t Sargent).
The belief that presidential “leadership” would have somehow bridged this divide is especially pernicious because it plays into the hands of GOP hardliners. So long as pundits insist that any policy chasm can be bridged with just an application of presidential leadership, it removes all incentive for the side opposing the president to do anything but hold a hard line. What else should they do when he gets the blame for their intransigence?