If there was a speech to be made (we’ve heard so many), it should have been one in which he took ownership of the government’s role in undermining S&P’s faith in America’s credit. Instead, President Obama referred passively to the dysfunction of Washington and its political institutions: but he’s in charge of one, and his party is in charge of half of the other.
Obama can’t blame Republicans for the tax cuts he signed into law, because he, well, signed them into law
, sighing contemptuously about being forced to do so. He can’t blame Republicans for a shoddy debt deal, because he offered no alternative, aside from vague hints about how the minority party slapped away his grand bargain (further details don’t exist).
It’s not that Americans are eager for a scapegoat. It’s that if Obama is right, and he is a victim, then Americans might be weary of a president who so often finds himself the victim of circumstances rather than the controller of them. His speech made him sound more like the man who comes up with excuses for why he’s been missing his payments to his loan officer than like the man who has a plan to start meeting his obligations. He campaigned as the latter. He has become the former.
Kennedy never gave in to that sort of passivity. Obama’s way forward is to tell Americans that everything he has done has been in the devout belief that we can get the economy going through innovative programs plucked from the grand American tradition of using public spending to foster private innovation, favored by Democrats and Republicans alike. And then he has to pivot — as close to 90 degrees as he can — toward the kind of economics at least some Republicans could endorse.
Instead of finding that way forward, he has boxed himself in. Now, if he pledges to work with renewed vigor toward bipartisan solutions, he has to admit fault for not doing so sooner. If he starts to coopt conservative policies, he must appear either insincere or brazenly cynical.
But even a cynical man can get things done.
This isn’t World War II or the Cold War. It isn’t even the Great Depression, yet. Obama should be attacking our economic problems. Instead, he is attacking S&P and the Republicans. His failure of leadership is a disaster. America knows it will survive — it needs no reassurance from the president on that point. But what it does need from the president is leadership and a plan for success. Obama has shown neither. And that’s why he’s now the AA+ president.
— J. P. Freire is a senior communications strategist at New Media Strategies.