Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The President as Seminar Leader

Given half a chance, Republicans will bend your ear off about how the budget that Obama just delivered to Congress represents a shameful abdication of presidential responsibility. When, by anyone’s reckoning, the government is headed toward insolvency, they think it’s the president’s job to set national priorities and figure out how to pay for them. The President, as George Bush liked to say, is “the decider” who has been authorized by the American people to exercise his own will in their collective behalf. Taking that notion of the presidency to heart, Republicans conclude that equivocation and evasiveness in the face of a budgetary crisis represents a dereliction of presidential duty.

Accordingly, they think Obama ought to be ashamed of himself.  Yet you can’t help noticing how conspicuously unashamed Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, are about this budget. I suppose that could be because they’re just shameless.  But it’s more likely that they're operating with a much different idea of presidential authority than the Republicans.

Consider, in this connection, David Kendall’s take on the budget. You might have expected that, if any Democrat is disheartened by the Obama budget, it would be the “senior fellow of health and fiscal policy” from a self-consciously moderate think tank like Third Way. Yet Kendall is already pronouncing it a roaring success (my emphasis):
A president’s budget is only as good as the debate that it engenders. After all, Congress doesn’t even have to vote on it, and it rarely does.

“Measured by this standard, President Obama’s budget is a resounding success. Republicans have tagged it as a job-killer. Deficit hawks say it doesn’t go far enough. Budget doves fear the impact of cuts to heating assistance and numerous other programs.

“Even with the criticism, it nudges the debate forward. It brings Democrats to the table with tough but necessary cuts that move away from stimulus spending. It challenges Republicans with long-term investments to unclog highways, expand exports and produce clean energy. And it tees up a debate about entitlements and taxes by making it clear that incremental changes aren’t enough to bring the debt down to previous levels.”
From all appearances he means it. What theory of presidential authority is driving this view of Obama’s budget? It’s pretty clearly not that the President’s main job, on this view, to be “the decider” who visibly acts (according to his own ideals and his best theory of how the world works) in the People's name.  Issuing a budget is apparently something more like presiding over a seminar in a way that provokes an intellectually fruitful discussion. On this view, there’s nothing more presidential than adroitly “tee[ing] up a debate” in a way that steers it in the right direction without leaving too many presidential fingerprints on the outcome.

If that sounds far-fetched, consider the terms in which Obama defended his budget yesterday and ask yourself whether he subscribes to Kendall’s view (my emphasis):
“‘You guys are pretty impatient. If something doesn’t happen today, then the assumption is that it’s not going to happen,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘This is not a matter of ‘you go first’ or ‘I go first.’ This is a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go and then ultimately everybody getting into that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.’ . . .

“‘My hope is that what’s different this time is we have an adult conversation where everybody says here’s what’s important and here’s how we are going to pay for it,’” Mr. Obama said, speaking to reporters from an auditorium in the Eisenhower Office Building. “I think the commission changed the conversation.
Sounds to me, strangely enough, like Obama and Kendall are on the same page.


Anonymous said...

From my graduate student days, I remember that professors could lead the discussion in a desired direction only because most of the graduate students were trying to suck up to them. No one outside of the administration is trying to suck up to Obama anymore.

KenB said...

I don't know if it's what Obama intended, but it seems like the Rs have decided that the best way to attack this proposal is to point out that it doesn't deal with entitlements, which is a stark (and salutory) turnaround from the "OMG he wants to cut Medicare!!" crap that some of them used against PPACA. If all the Rs go on record saying that entitlements must be tackled, it gives more space to Obama and the Ds to propose cuts without worrying that the Rs will reverse-demagogue them for it.

Anonymous said...

News flash: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner today testified under oath under questioning from Sen. Sessions that the president's own budget, submitted Monday, calls for interest payments and obligations that are "excessively high" and "unsustainable." Hello!!!!!! It's the administration's own plan and it is unsustainable according to the Treasury Secretary. Are there any adults in this administration?????