Leon Panetta spent plenty of time in the Obama administration, first as a surprisingly effective CIA Director and later as Secretary of Defense, until Chuck Hagel took over this year.  Panetta previously worked for Bill Clinton during his first term as OMB director and then chief of staff.  He’s been around a few crises, and it’s safe to say that Panetta has been unimpressed by all of the players in the latest budget fight — but saves up a good portion of the blame for his former boss.  Ruth Marcus relates Panetta’s criticism of Barack Obama’s refusal to engage and the resulting chaos in Washington:

Asked repeatedly whether he was being correctly understood as critical of President Obama, Panetta was careful to assert that “I don’t want to put it all on the president” and that there is “enough blame to go around.” But he did not spare Obama.

“We govern either by leadership or crisis. . . . If leadership is not there, then we govern by crisis,” Panetta said at the start of the session, sponsored by The Wall Street Journal. “Clearly, this town has been governing by crisis after crisis after crisis.”

Which raised the obvious question: What does this say about the president’s leadership? ….

Then, to Obama. “This president — he’s extremely bright, he’s extremely able, he’s somebody who I think certainly understands the issues, asks the right questions, and I think has the right instincts about what needs to be done for the country.”

Next came the “but” — without a name but with a clear message. “You have to engage in the process. This is a town where it’s not enough to feel you have the right answers. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and you’ve got to really engage in the process . . . that’s what governing is all about.”

Kudos to Marcus for giving Panetta’s remarks straight. Unfortunately, some of Marcus’ colleagues didn’t seem as eager to relate Panetta’s criticisms of executive leadership in the Hopenchange Era. Marcus dryly observes that these reporters didn’t seem too unhappy with presidential leadership, or the lack thereof:

To some extent, the reporters in the room seemed more forgiving of the circumstances in which the president finds himself. Jackie Calmes of the New York Times noted that the Panetta-envisioned budget deal was illusory because Republicans refuse to consider new tax revenue. Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times observed that the White House would argue that its previous efforts at schmoozing and deal-making had fizzled.

Jeff Dunetz points out that some Democrats gripe about this, even if reporters aren’t anxious to report it:

Panetta’s comments are nothing new–there were grumblings in his own party about his hands off approach during previous contentious debates such as the stimulus bill, and Obamacare.

I would also suggest that the President’s continued “campaign mode” combined with his hands off approach and lack of leadership is a major contributor to the “meanness” that Panetta was describing above.

This is a President who doesn’t lead…he divides.

Marcus suggests appointing Panetta to lead the negotiations in the future, but it’s not a personnel problem, which is Panetta’s point, although he does suggest delegating the responsibility to someone else if the issue is mostly a personality conflict. Obama has plenty of people around him who could negotiate if Obama wanted negotiations, but Obama publicly refused to negotiate with the House at all.  Jack Lew or Denis McDonough could have worked with Congressional leadership, but that’s not Obama’s view of governance.  His view is that he sets the agenda and that Congress has to follow, which worked fine his first two years when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.  That approach has helped derail Washington ever since Republicans took control of the House.

That’s not leadership.  It’s arrogance and petulance, and Panetta correctly identifies the problems (without naming them explicitly) in this assessment.