Super committee failure: Obama's absence hurt

A hands-off approach can't be dismissed as just Obama being Obama. Today's challenges demand greater presidential involvement.

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President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress about jobs.

A hands-off approach can't be dismissed as just Obama being Obama. Today's challenges demand greater presidential involvement.

The Gang of Twelve, congressional bipartisan deficit-reduction committee, or whatever you choose to call it, co-chaired by our Sen. Patty Murray, admitted failure Monday afternoon in its effort to cut $1.2 trillion in federal red ink over a 10-year period.

Unless a bipartisan deal is reached otherwise, cuts approximating that sum now will be arbitrarily made in Pentagon and non-defense spending.  (The arbitrary cuts, however, would not kick in until 2013 and could, of course, be amended by the president and Congress in office then). Rage understandably will be expressed by many people, in many places about the upcoming arbitrary cuts.

My initial personal reaction to the announced failure was anger. How could they blow this chance? In the big picture, $1.2 trillion amounts to little compared to overall federal debt of about $15 trillion. Even the smallest kind of shared, bipartisan sacrifice would have gotten the negotiators there. I thought of President Lyndon Johnson's favorite epithets about people he thought were botching their jobs: "They couldn't pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were on the heel!" and, "They couldn't find their butts with both hands!"

But, on thinking about it, I recognized that the committee members, for the most part, had been trying to get a deal. Democratic Sens. John Kerry and Max Baucus, in particular, tried a late-afternoon rescue Monday but ran out of time. And House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid had genuinely wanted a deal. A number of pro-bono organizations, and a bipartisan group of some 150 Democratic and GOP senators and House members, had urged the committee to reach a far larger "big deal." Republican Sen. Pat Toomey came up with a late proposal to cut itemized tax deductions and to use the resulting revenue to cut tax rates. He proposed to raise the top two bracket rates enough to produce $250 billion.  No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin called it "a breakthrough." But inertia and partisanship triumphed.

The bipartisan effort followed, you remember, the ragged fire drill last summer to lift the federal debt limit and was the follow-on step to that process.  Moody's downgraded U.S. debt after the debt-limit fiasco and financial markets took a hit.  No elected official wanted a replay of that or to be blamed for it. Rating agencies and markets will tell us quickly how they feel. Voters will do so, in varying ways, between now and next November's national elections. Both Tea Partiers and Occupiers will have good reason to vent against the continuing sins of the established order.

I'm most frustrated by the non-involvement in the process of President Barack Obama.  Obama's own deficit-reduction commission (the Simpson-Bowles commission) came up with proposals that would have made the debt-limit and most recent exercises unnecessary. But Obama walked away from those proposals, opting instead to express concern about Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts. In the present exercise, he has been just plain absent without leave.

This has to do, in part, with Obama's view of the presidency and how it should be conducted. He subcontracted the substance of his 2009 health-reform and stimulus programs to Democratic congressional leaders and found, afterward, that he had ownership of plans with political and other downsides. Nonetheless they became his and he saw them through — resulting, in part, in the loss of 63 Democratic House seats in 2010 and GOP control of that body.  In the current exercise he chose to absent himself, and to position himself as independent arbiter, rather than taking a direct hand in the proceedings.  He was overseas during the final days.

In both cases Obama erred. I cannot imagine any president of the past 80 years, from Franklin Roosevelt onward, who would have been a relative bystander when landmark legislation and taxing/spending decisions were being framed. The above-mentioned LBJ would have been up to his elbows in all of it from the beginning. Down the stretch in the recent deficit-reduction talks, Johnson would have been everywhere — in the White House, at the Capitol, on national media — publicly and privately bringing pressure and brokering deals to make the exercise work.  It would have.

But, we have learned, that is just not Obama's style.  He will go public, talking in general terms about "shared sacrifice" and "the need for compromise" but he simply is not going to get into bargaining and horse-trading with congressional leaders with whom he is fundamentally uncomfortable.

In a less polarized political environment, and in a stable economy, that could be an entirely satisfactory posture.  But the present-day process is simply not going to work unless the president is actively committed and involved at both the takeoffs and landings.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of