Obama is not providing the leadership the US needs

The President is staying firmly on the sidelines, in the face of another potential financial crisis.

There will be no President Bartlett moment -- no West Wing style last minute drama as the commander-in-chief lays down the line to a bickering Congress. This President is staying firmly on the sidelines.

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, has talked of plenty of backroom conversations and top level meetings. However, the face of the debt ceiling crisis negotiations is not Obama's, but Republican House Speaker John Boehner's. After the President's attempt to broker a deal with him failed late last week, the administration's efforts are now being led by Joe Biden, while Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is busy planning for the worst case scenario: not reaching an agreement to raise the debt ceiling in time. There isn't even a White House "war room" to deal with the crisis.

It's got pundits on all sides claiming that President Obama is in danger of looking like a spectator at the funeral of his own economy. In the meantime, it's Boehner's deficit reduction plan in the spotlight -- his Bill in front of the House, his responsibility to bring reluctant Tea Party hardliners into line. If the measure does pass today -- and at the moment it's deemed "too close to call" -- Democrats have pledged to defeat it in the Senate. President Obama says he'll veto it. But then who would look like they were the ones tipping the nation into that "catastrophic" default? Obamagaddon, indeed.

In this intricate game of political chess, with the fate of the most powerful economy on earth at stake, has the White House lost the initiative? Remember healthcare? That long summer of 2009 when Obama sat back and somehow let the narrative get overtaken by the conservative right? Even the rival plan, piloted by Boehner's opposite number Harry Reid, has dropped the commitment to tax hikes as part of the debt ceiling solution, although it does at least ring-fence entitlements like Medicare.

But liberal disappointment is rife. Here's Democratic Rep Peter Welch: "The House Republicans have been successful in getting two plans, Boehner and Reid, that are all cuts, no revenues, and a debate about doing this all at once or in two stages. The Democratic approach was a balanced approach. We lost."

It is true that the plan that Boehner is promoting has exposed the deep fault-lines within his own party, with a sizeable number of Tea Party activists refusing to sign up to any compromise at all. But President Obama has his own unity issues, with liberals frustrated that he appears to have conceded quite so much ground in what looks like an effort to appease the conservative right. One "senior party operative", quoted on Politico, bemoans the situation: "Every policy outcome for liberals is a loss at this point...We may win on trhe politics, but the policy battle is lost. It's just depressing."

Look at the latest polls, and they do show that most Americans blame the Republicans for the gridlock. After all, Obama did inherit a $1.2 trillion budget deficit -- and it was his predecessor George Bush who was behind the tax cuts and wars which made that deficit so much steeper.

"Call your Congressmen," Obama told the American people on Monday, and worried families have been bombarding Capitol Hill with phone calls. But Obama's own popularity ratings have slipped back over the last month, while the numbers who think he's doing a good job on the economy have slumped. Of course, some 75 per cent of Democrats are still rallying behind their leader, but goodwill can't automatically be taken for granted. And heading into 2012, active support from the grassroots -- not to mention party donors -- will be crucial in those battleground states.

And what the White House wants to avoid at all costs is putting Obama's neck on the line if there's no last minute compromise on the debt ceiling. He's already been strongly advised not to invoke the 14th amendment to force through an increase. "Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting," he said earlier this week. "But that's not how our democracy functions".

But in the face of another potential financial crisis -- and real pain for millions of Americans -- what the country is looking for is leadership. And now, more than ever, it's their President's chance to provide it.

 

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle