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.