Analysts: Obama's debt talks leadership shows defining persistence

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 21, 2011 

WASHINGTON — In a presidency filled with defining moments, historians suggest the legacy of the debt ceiling showdown may be the steady persistence shown by Barack Obama.

He has offered to meet with lawmakers at the White House "every single day" to stave off an unprecedented government default. He's held three press conferences in two weeks. He's pressed for a big, historic agreement, and his aides say he's offered flexible tactics to get one.

"He's able to say, 'I tried, we talked and talked, I invited them over to the White House, I gave them $3 in taxes for every $1 in spending cuts, and still they wouldn't take it," said H.W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

With the showdown still unresolved, Brands says it's too early to declare a winner — should the U.S. default, both sides are likely to get blamed.

"Let me know how this turns out and I'll tell you who the good leaders were," he said. "But whether it was President Obama's insightful maneuvering to put them there, or Republican blundering, Republicans are in a corner where almost any solution works to the president's political benefit," Brands said.

"If there's a deal he's able to say, 'Because of leadership we got a deal. If we don't get a deal, the way it's developed is that Republicans are blocking a deal," Brands said.

The current showdown between Obama and Republicans in Congress over the debt ceiling and future deficits may be the defining moment of the third year of his presidency, but it's not the first. Other big moments include his takeover of GM and Chrysler, which showed his will to use state power to fight recession; his stimulus package, which showed the same; his health care law, which showed his commitment to achieve a long-sought liberal goal; and the killing of Osama bin Laden, which showed his will to take risks to achieve large results.

George Edwards, a scholar of the presidency at Texas A&M University, said that Obama's push to trim $4 trillion off future deficits while lifting the debt ceiling mirrors his doggedness to get health care reform passed by Congress in 2010 even without a single Republican vote.

"He persisted in his desire for a big solution," Edwards said. "There may be a risk in there, but it shows him to be a realist."

Others fault Obama for lack of leadership, saying he's repeating a pattern of being late to the debate, and that he failed to make the case for sweeping deficit reduction much earlier.

David Schanzer, an associate professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and author of the Gridlock blog, said he's been "confused and disappointed" by Obama's leadership.

While Obama "is now showing that he's willing to engage in a real give and take," he failed to seize the opportunity presented in November by his Bowles-Simpson commission, which recommended $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. Obama essentially ignored his own commission when presenting his next budget in February. Only in the past few weeks has he begun talking seriously about sweeping deficit reduction, Schanzer said.

"I think he's struggling now to make it work because the groundwork hasn't been laid," Schanzer said. "I think he provided mixed signals and allowed the playing field to be shaped, mostly by Republicans calling for dramatic spending cuts, or else.

"He had eight months to explain to the public why a very large, complex solution ... would have had support. ...I just don't think you can start proposing pretty steep cuts in Medicare and changing the retirement age in private meetings. Your own troops aren't going to follow you."

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, says Obama's offer to make cuts in Democratic sacred cows such as Medicare underscores another Obama trait: his push to compromise with Republicans risks angering his base, as he did by giving up the public option in pushing health care.

"In the end he's accepted the Republican terms of the debate, deficit reduction rather than protecting government services, (or) going after unemployment," Zelizer said. "There's a cost to that. He's not going to lose his base, but he certainly loses their energy. And he has to ask, does he want a presidency that's basically fulfilling Republican objectives?"

Edwards counters that such critics overestimate the power of the presidential bully pulpit. He notes that President Bill Clinton tried but failed to reform the nation's health care system and that George W. Bush spent 2005 trying to overhaul Social Security and got nowhere.

"Show me a time any president has taken a case to the public and moved public opinion," Edwards said. "The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that they don't move public opinion. What is moving the public now is this crisis mode, more and more people saying, 'This is a serious deal."

Edwards gives Obama's response high marks — "all things considered."

"He's been persistent. He hasn't given away the store, but he's showed a lot of flexibility," Edwards said. "And as a result of that, the evidence is more and more from the polls that the public is on his side."

A new CNN/ORC poll out Thursday showed that 64 percent of Americans back Obama's call for a deficit-reduction plan that combines tax hikes and spending cuts, while only 34 percent think it should be done by spending cuts alone, the Republican position. Other recent polls report similar findings.

The appearance of intransigence among House Republicans may be helping Obama, Edwards said.

"The idea that the White House could convince Republicans to vote like Democrats is not going to happen," Edwards said. "It's not because he doesn't have the right words, or demeanor or some personal failing. I don't know that there's someone else who could be more persuasive and turn (House Majority Leader Eric) Cantor's head."

Brands, one of nine historians invited to the White House shortly after Obama took office, noted that voters traditionally give the executive branch the edge when it comes to disputes with Congress.

"There's no sense that Congress represents America like there is for the presidency," he said. Brands suggested that the spat says more about 21st century politics and a fractured Republican Party than it does about Obama.

"This demonstrates that it's harder to be a leader in American politics than it has been in a long time," he said. "There's usually not such tremendous heavy lifting involved in raising the debt ceiling."

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