The complaint on both counts is that the chief executive isn’t leading the way. The president, though, maintains that his ambiguity is a virtue.
In his press conference Tuesday, Obama was called on to defend his positions – or lack thereof – on entitlement spending and the ongoing Middle Eastern uprising. In each case, the question was why the president hasn’t been clearer about his own vision.
Obama’s response was that by withholding his own recommendations, he is actually able to draw out a better result from others who must work to solve problems on their own – that choosing not to lead is the kind of leadership that these situations demand.
“History will end up recording that on every juncture, we were on the right side of history,” Obama said of Egypt. “What we didn't do is pretend we can predict the outcome, because we can't.”
In truth, there is much history yet to be written about Egypt. It remains unclear whether the transition to democracy there will take place at all and if it does whether it will bring liberty or a new kind of tyranny.
And if republican government and individual freedom reign in Egypt a generation from now, history may record that Obama leaned that way a bit, but it wasn’t exactly a bold stand.
Not only did Obama scale back American pressure on Hosni Mubarak on human rights from the dudgeon of George W. Bush, but he opted to make his “address to the Muslim world” from Mubarak’s police state in 2009.
Once things got cooking in Cairo on Jan. 25, it was hard to figure out exactly where the administration stood.
The transition from Mubarak needed to begin “now” or “yesterday,” but what did the White House mean by “transition?” Would it be OK for Mubarak to stay until September or did he need to step down? No one at the White House was saying.
Once it looked like Mubarak, with the help of the Egyptian army, might try to wait it out, we started hearing about the importance of “stability” and the role that Mubarak might play in the transition.
The Muslim Brotherhood was described as a “mostly secular” group that had renounced violence. But then we heard that the group did have ties to terrorists, but that it wasn’t a great concern because the Brotherhood lacked political clout in Egypt. Of course, that was only after we were told that the new Egyptian government “has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors.”
All of that confusion, we are now told, was part of a deliberate effort to let the Egyptian people realize their own liberation and not have the U.S. try to impose its will on another country. The president argues that by letting Egypt work things out for itself, he helped achieve a better outcome.
Now, Obama says he will do with John Boehner what he did with Mubarak.
Commentators were shocked when Obama’s 2012 budget not only didn’t include any of the recommendations of his bipartisan debt commission but generally ducked the issues of deficit and debt reductions. Obama’s total projected debt reduction over the next decade is equal to the debt he seeks to add in the next year alone.
Obama chided those who questioned his budget’s silence on the issues driving the national debt – entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare – for their “impatience” and explained that the time wasn’t yet right to take up the issue. Obama said he would be looking to Republicans to demonstrate their “serious” commitment to change before he would engage.
This is similar to the way the president dealt with the issue of health care in the first half of his term. Obama said that he wanted a bill and then told his fellow Democrats in Congress that he expected them to produce something that met the broad outlines of his vision.
After 14 months, Obama did get a bill, but only after he eventually gave up his posture of arbiter and became the chief negotiator, architect and salesman of the plan. The resulting process proved messy, disconcerting to voters and ultimately unsatisfying.
Now, Obama is trying to again stand aloof from the process on fixing the national debt. He has cast himself in the role of judge for whatever plan Republicans produce, but Republicans will not be inclined to submit to his jurisprudence. Instead of a messy, prolonged process like the one in health care, the initiative might just evaporate if Obama doesn’t take the first step.
Remember that one of the most common lines of attack from the Democratic Party during the 2010 election was that Republicans were looking to put Social Security at risk with their “extreme” positions. For the president to now demand that Republicans make proposals he deems “serious” enough to merit consideration seems a bit far-fetched.
House Republicans have promised their own plan for dealing with the current fiscal crisis and that it will address the points Obama left untouched in his 10-year budget plan. But given the political cost the president’s party has exacted for such proposals in the past, Republicans will be disinclined to enter the president’s courtroom.
Instead, Republicans will be more likely to battle Obama on the day-to-day issues of current spending levels and the next year’s budget, leaving aside substantive work on the fiscal catastrophe waiting at the end of this decade. The Republican plan, presuming it doesn’t meet the president’s threshold for seriousness, will likely just gather dust in GOP hard drives until 2013.
There is obvious political appeal to Obama neglecting his own debt commission’s recommendations and pushing these issues into a presumptive second term. The reforms suggested are much hated by liberal groups and labor unions on which the president will rely for his reelection next year. Taking chances to solve long-range problems is rarely considered smart short-term politics.
But in the process, Obama has opened himself to accusations that he is a cynic more concerned about his own re-election than achieving the change he promised. The president’s stature on questions of debt, deficit and spending was already weak with American voters. Failing to show leadership on the issue now may permanently seal his status as fiscal flake in the collective consciousness.
Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.