Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Talking a Good Game and Governing

By now, we all know about Obama’s penchant for governing by “leading from behind.” He likes to hang back, letting policy take shape in forums outside the White House, exerting influence, if at all, behind the scenes. That enables him to duck responsibility if things don't pan out.  But if it looks like they will, Obama asserts himself late in the game, or at least gives the appearance of self-assertion, so that he can put his own stamp on whatever policy emerges from the process and claim it as one of his own achievements.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is a matter of tactical dexterity in the service of well-defined objectives or a matter of his not having well-defined objectives to begin with. For my part, I think it depends on what policies you’re talking about: health care reform was pretty clearly a matter of the former while the kinetic military operation in Libya is pretty clearly an example of the latter. As to a lot of other policies—Afghanistan, DADT, letting the Bush tax cuts expire in the upper brackets—it’s hard to say.  The one thing you can say with some assurance, however, is that the more actively Obama is engaged in governance, the less you’re likely to hear about his own governing priorities.  As a rule, he doesn't talk forthrightly and govern at the same time.

So what does it tell you that Obama was wearing his priorities on his sleeve in his speech last night?  Characteristically, he’d inserted himself visibly into the debt-ceiling negotiations only this month when he  figured a deal had to be imminent and he saw the opportunity to portray himself as a genuine deficit-hawk who wasn’t about to sell out beneficiaries of the welfare state. He stepped back from the fray in exasperation last Friday, however, when John Boehner walked away from the negotiating table.  So why was he addressing the nation now?

The conceit of last night's speech was that, in the manner of Ronald Reagan, Obama was taking the issue about how to attack the deficit—a “cuts-only” or a “balanced approach” that mixes spending cuts and tax increases--to the American people over the heads of squabbling congressmen. Whatever else you may say about Reagan, he knew how to make speech into an instrument of governance.  If there were any doubt remaining, last night's speech made it pretty clear that Obama doesn't. 

This bit from his speech was particularly rich:
"So I’m asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your Member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message."
That request might have made some sense when Obama was still negotiating with Boehner and revenue increases were still on the table.  Now that neither congressional Republicans nor Democrats are contemplating tax increases as part of a debt-ceiling deal, and Obama isn't threatening to use his veto power under any circumstances, it’s just his way of pretending that his willful disengagement from the negotiations is a form of engagement.  He's talking a pretty good game, so you can be pretty sure that he's not governing.


Anonymous said...

Are liberals actually paying attention? Is this the most astonishing lack of leadership that any president has ever exhibited? Did I hear this correctly: Obama was asking John/Joan Q Public to call their congressional representative and complain?

Does he have advisors? Are they lucid?

I'm sure this is all going to be yesterday's news come August 3, but still, they way the president has conducted himself is really scary. He's not fit for this presidency.

Terry said...

Come on, anon. Maybe a day late and a dollar short. But not fit for the presidency because he asks for popular support?

Anonymous said...

Not fit for the presidency is correct. He is showing an inability to govern. Governing is what being a president is about. As is Leading. Deciding. Having an ideology.

Whether you agree or disagree with a president, at least a president should be leading the US. This president is so incapable of handling the big issues -- esp. our economy and foreign policy. I'm praying for a primary challenge.