Finally — a bipartisan consensus emerges! Last night, CNN’s Dana Bash reported that Democrats on Capitol Hill have begun grumbling about the last-minute leadership of President Obama on the budget, having been less than impressed with his involvement until the moment of greatest media interest. Bash says that the strategy of keeping Obama “above the fray” leaves them holding the bag for failure — or worse, having a compromise forced down their throats. Anderson Cooper pronounces himself less than impressed:
BASH: I can tell you that talking to Democratic sources here in Congress over the past weeks, weeks and weeks, actually really months as this has been going on, this short-term spending bill after short-term spending bill to try to keep the government running, there’s been a lot of frustration with the President, with the White House, that they have not gotten more involved. You certainly saw the President out tonight and you saw him out last night. You’re seeing him involved at the eleventh hour. But many of his fellow Democrats are saying, where were you before? We needed you before.
And the reason, they think, is because it’s just not a politically a good thing for him to be doing to be getting involved in this kind of fight when he’s positioning himself for reelection and doesn’t want to be mired in this back and forth over a few billion dollars in spending.
COOPER: That’s why people hate politics.
Politico takes the White House spin to a conclusion that gets to the risk involved in the 30,000-foot strategy:
Obama staged several eleventh-hour interventions on health care reform. He repeated the tactic with far greater success during last year’s tax-cut debate, and he did it again Tuesday — popping into the White House briefing room when the drumbeat over his lack of public involvement was loudest, and the talks were disintegrating behind closed doors.
But it’s a strategy that chafes against his negotiating partners on both sides of the aisle — and there’s no guarantee it will work this time. There are many outstanding issues, from defense dollars to abortion, and the unpredictability of Speaker John Boehner’s tea party caucus may defy an Obama-style perils-of-Pauline rescue to prevent a shutdown by midnight Friday.
So the question for Obama is simple — Can the closer close the deal? — and the risks are big. If a shutdown happens and Obama can paint the Republicans as letting the lights go out over, say, Planned Parenthood funding, he could come off as the more serious leader.
But if talks fall apart and the GOP succeeds in portraying Obama as weak on fiscal issues, it could undermine his rationale for 2012 — that he’s the only responsible grownup capable of rising above the Washington squabbling to get things done.
There are a couple of problems for Obama in selling this. First, he’s been AWOL on the budget for months. He could have pressed Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to produce a budget in 2010 when Democrats had full control of Congress. Where was his outrage then? It’s not exactly leadership to wait seven months past a budget deadline to finally get personally involved. For that matter, as I mentioned in my last post, this sudden burst of leadership has done nothing to produce a budget in the Senate, where his own party has a majority.
Second, a failure here runs the real risk of his previous lack of leadership getting a lot more attention. Presidents don’t usually make grandstanding efforts unless (a) they already have a victory in hand, or (b) a failure will suit their political purposes. The latter was true for Bill Clinton in 1995-6 because it was the Republicans who had full responsibility for producing a budget. That’s not true now, when Obama has been an absentee executive on budgets for seven months and couldn’t even lead his own team to do their jobs.
Obama could have closed the deal in September. Instead, Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue ran away from their responsibilities out of fear of voter backlash if they revealed their true agenda, and in the Senate and the White House, they’re still running away. That may be many things, but leadership it is not.