Thursday, April 7, 2011

More on Obama’s Passivity

Tuesday, I was scratching my head over Obama’s passivity in the face of a government shutdown. Sometimes he looks like he’s a principal in the budget battle who has authorized Harry Reid to act as his agent in negotiations with Republicans. Other times, Obama looks more like a mediator trying to facilitate an agreement between Reid Democrats and John Boehner Republicans to which he isn’t a party. But either way, Obama never looks like an engaged participant in the negotiations. That leaves Reid, a guy who regards financing “cowboy poetry” as a pressing public priority, as the Democrats' budgetary spokesman.

Obama’s reticence presents an interesting contrast with Bill Clinton’s conduct in a similar situation in the 1990s. Both he and Obama were trying to recover from a “shellacking” in a mid-term election. If anything, Clinton’s political footing was less sure than Obama’s because he’d lost both the House and the Senate and Newt Gingrich was trying to elbow him into ceremonial irrelevance. Yet it’s fair to say that Clinton not only revived his presidency, but successfully promoted Democratic budgetary priorities, by jumping into budgetary negotiations with both feet. Why isn’t Obama following that apparently compelling precedent?

Part of the explanation is that, as I’ve noted before, passivity seems to be an integral feature of Obama’s conception of “presidential leadership” on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts.  But Manju Raju reminds us that there’s probably more to it than that. Obama isn’t the only player in this drama to whom Clinton’s conduct in the 1990s presents a pertinent precedent (my emphasis):
“Democrats in the Senate have put their blind faith behind [Reid] to cut a deal in the secretive talks, meaning the majority leader will have ownership of a plan certain to displease a wide range of senators. . . . In some respects, Reid has gained more trust from Democrats in the Senate, who are growing increasingly skeptical that Obama has their best interests at heart.

“At meeting after meeting, Senate Democrats have berated Obama’s lack of personal intervention in the budget negotiations, senators say, even though White House senior staff has been engaged in talks for weeks and the president has stepped in during the past couple days. But at the same time, they’re concerned the White House has far different objectives that would alienate much of their caucus if the talks were left up to the West Wing and Boehner.
It sounds like congressional Democrats haven’t forgotten that, although Clinton’s swashbuckling involvement in budget negotiations with Gingrich paid huge political dividends for him, it didn’t confer any noticeable political benefit on the congressional wing of his party. So maybe congressional Democrats wouldn’t authorize Obama to negotiate a continuing resolution on their behalf even if he wanted to.  That would mean that this really is a three-way negotiation in which the Democrats aren't, and Republicans are, able to speak in one voice.  And it would go a long way toward explaining why Boehner seems to be driving a harder bargain than either Reid or Obama.


Danny said...

Reid's problem is that a lot of caucus is to Obama's left (Harkin, Sanders, Brown et al) and a lot of it is to Obama's right (Nelson, Landrieu (sp?), Tester, et al). So Reids got to be negotiating to hold the middle 51 votes in his caucus.

Anonymous said...

For my part, I hope there is an impasse followed by a long, government shutdown. Then all the non-essential workers can stay home.

Once government gets back to work, we can then get rid of all the non-essential employees, who are, by the way, non-essential. That should save us some money going forward.