Democrats in Congress say they have grown frustrated with President Obama’s lack of leadership in their ongoing battle with Republicans over spending cuts.
Maybe he has left the blue team in the lurch, but it is hard to rouse too much sympathy for the dashing of such vain hopes.
There is nothing in Obama’s career to suggest that he is one for political rough riding. So, for his fellow Democrats to express sudden dismay that the president isn’t leading the charge seems rather odd.
During the 14-month fight over Obama’s national health-care law – the most brutal political battle since the impeachment of Bill Clinton – the president opted not to fully engage until the final three weeks.
If the president declined to take the lead when it came to a multi-trillion-dollar law that will forever be associated with his name, why would Democrats assume that he would be so quick to saddle up for some penny ante squabbling over funding the government for six months?
But in Congress, Democrats, both moderate and liberal, continue to wonder aloud why Obama is not doing more to resolve the current impasse on spending. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said it the most tartly, when he charged last week that Obama had “failed to lead,” but we have heard similar refrains from many of his colleagues.
One would think that by now, Obama’s fellow Democrats would know how this works. Obama is above the fray and they, alas, are the fray.
On his health-care law, his stimulus spending plan, his energy policy, his debt commission and more, Obama has been very content to allow congressional Democrats to muck out the legislative stables before he gets his hands dirty.
In each case, Obama had suggested a goal – universal health insurance, economic recovery, fees on carbon emissions, or a balanced budget – and then tasked Congress with delivering it. The strategy has given Obama some operating room and plausible deniability when Congress as failed (as in the case of global warming) or, more often, delivered something broadly unsatisfying (such as his health-care law).
When Obama goes on the campaign trail for himself and bemoans the way people operate “in Washington,” do Congressional Democrats not understand that he’s talking about them too? Obama’s brand relies on him staying aloof from all their grubby grabbing.
And as Democrats learned the hard way in 2010, there is a high price to pay for doing the scut work of executing the Obama agenda. We will never know how many Democrats might have been spared defeat in November if the president had been more deeply engaged in the making of his own health-care legislation. Not only would he have been there to share the blame for a process that was widely seen as flawed, but his direction might have brought a swifter conclusion.
Because Obama let Democrats chase their tails on health care for so long, they did not wrap up work on the highly divisive legislation until March 2010, not leaving enough time for perceptions of the law to mellow in the minds of angry voters.
Since the elections, Obama has worked hard to disassociate himself with some of the law’s unpopular provisions. His administration has freely granted waivers on some of the more onerous obligations and even offered states more time to try to wriggle free of expensive entitlement provisions.
It must have seemed a cruel irony to some defeated House members when Obama compared his compromise on the extending tax rates in December’s lame-duck session of Congress to the health-care battle, chiding Democrats who were upset over his cave-in on a core campaign promise.
Obama accused his fellow Democrats of seeking “a purist position and no victories for the American people,” on taxes just as they had sought a government-run health insurance program. He said it was “the public option all over again.”
But it was his idea!
Obama was the one who proposed the government-run program in 2008 and savaged Hillary Clinton for failing to include one in her 2008 campaign plan. But rather than fighting for it, he let his fellow liberals follow him out onto the “public option” limb and then sawed it off.
This is the guy who Democrats now expect to fight John Boehner tooth and nail over funding for National Public Radio and Planned Parenthood? Not gonna happen, folks.
Obama’s above-the-fray approach even extends also to international matters.
He may say that he is “tightening the noose” around Muammar Qaddafi, but the ones left dangling at the end of the rope are the rebels facing Qaddafi’s better-supplied military.
In Egypt, things have so far worked out as Obama had hoped. In Libya, things are shaping up less attractively. Do not look for Obama to herald that “at every juncture” in the Libya that he was “on the right side of history.”
Being above the fray means you can take credit for good outcomes but take no blame for bad ones.
Obama’s aides and admirers suggest that this detachment is a form of strategic disengagement – that Obama is building consensus and then steering it in the right direction and preserving his powers for important moments.
His communications director told the Associated Press this week that Americans don’t want the president “serving as a cable commentator for the issue of the day.” Except for on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates and the building of the Ground Zero mosque and Kanye West’s behavior at the Grammys and who is going to win the NCAA basketball tournament.
As 2012 nears, Obama’s refusal to wade in to the nitty gritty of policy looks more like a strategy of self preservation than a cerebral leadership style. It may help the president avoid the daily grind of politics it also opens him to perceptions of cynicism, weakness and, worst of all, irrelevance.
With congressional Democrats facing another rough election cycle, Obama will be tempted to continue to let them continue to thrash about on the Hill. But if he doesn’t find a way soon to engage, voters may forget why his presidency matters.
Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.