Ever since the midterms, the White House’s tactics have consistently maximized President Obama’s short-term advantage while diminishing his overall authority. Call it the “too clever by half” presidency: the administration’s maneuvering keeps working out as planned, but Obama’s position keeps eroding.
Start with the first round of deficit debates this winter. After the Republican sweep, the White House seemed to have two options: double down on Keynesian stimulus or pivot to the center and champion deficit reduction. Instead, Obama chose to hover above the fray, passing on his own fiscal commission’s recommendations and letting the Republicans make the first move.
The strategy worked, in a sense. Goaded by the president’s evasiveness, Paul Ryan and the House Republicans put forward a detailed long-term budget proposal of their own, whose Medicare cuts proved predictably unpopular. But while the subsequent policy debate favored Obama, the optics of the confrontation diminished him. The chairman of the House Budget Committee looked more like a leader than the president of the United States.
Then came the spring’s great foreign policy dilemma, the civil war in Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya. The president (wisely) didn’t want to put America’s blood and treasure on the line for the rebels, but he also didn’t want to take responsibility for letting Qaddafi crush the revolt. So the White House opted for a kind of quasi war, throwing just enough military power at the problem to ensure a stalemate and then punting responsibility to our NATO allies. An Obama adviser told The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza that the president was pioneering a new American way of statecraft: “Leading from behind.”
Again, the strategy worked, sort of. An immediate humanitarian crisis was averted, and Libya quickly fell out of the headlines. But it left Americans to contemplate a peculiar and unpresidential spectacle: The leader of the free world taking the country to war while pretending that he wasn’t, and then effectively washing his hands of the ultimate outcome — which, 135 days and counting later, is still very much in doubt.
The same pattern has played out in the debt ceiling debate. Instead of drawing clear lines and putting forward detailed proposals, the president has played Mr. Compromise — ceding ground to Republicans here, sermonizing about Tea Party intransigence and Washington gridlock there, and fleshing out his preferred approach reluctantly, if at all.
The White House no doubt figured that this negotiating strategy would either lead to a bipartisan grand bargain or else expose Republican extremism — or better still, do both. And again, the strategy is arguably working. Americans were given a glimpse of right-wing populism’s reckless side last week, and the final deal will probably let the president burnish his centrist credentials just in time for 2012.
But winning a debate on points isn’t a substitute for looking like a leader. It’s one thing to bemoan politics-as-usual when you’re running for the White House. It’s quite another to publicly throw up your hands over our “dysfunctional government” when you’re the man the voters put in charge of it.