“Call me naïve,” President Obama told reporters during his press conference
yesterday, “but my expectation is that leaders are going to lead.”
I’m not sure “naïve” is right, but terms like “frivolous” and “vain” did come to mind again and again throughout the press conference. The President came before reporters without any news to make. He seemed to want to vent a kind of unfocused rage at Congress for something — criticizing congressional leaders at various points for taking too many breaks, for failing to take up patent reforms and free trade legislation, and generally ignoring the fiscal crisis (all of which, we can only assume, were criticisms of Democratic leaders). And when he turned to Republicans, he argued that they were not making serious proposals in the debt-limit talks. They were failing to lead, he said repeatedly.
It all had the feel of a childish tantrum by a person who desperately wishes he were living in a different reality — one in which he is the heroic man of action and his opponents are irresponsible and weak. But the fact is, the president and congressional Democrats have so far utterly failed to offer any path out of our fiscal problems — problems that they have greatly exacerbated. The president proposed a budget in February that would have increased the deficit, and then he retracted it in April and proposed nothing in particular in its place. Senate Democrats have not proposed a budget in two years; they now suggest they finally have one, though apparently it won’t really be brought to a vote. Republicans, meanwhile, have proposed a specific path out of our fiscal mess — averting a debt crisis and setting the budget on a course toward balance through discretionary cuts, budget-process reforms, and gradual but significant entitlement reforms. Rather than negotiate over that budget, the president has chosen to play the demagogue, simultaneously insisting that the budget offers nothing and that it goes too far in cutting government services (medical research, food inspectors, and the weather service are apparently in particular danger, he said yesterday, providing a kind of Salvador Dali map of postmodern lifestyle liberalism).
Now, having added about $5 trillion to the national debt since taking office (nearly doubling the debt), the president wants permission to add another $2 trillion, and he’s upset that rather than being given that permission together with a set of class-warfare tax hikes he is being asked to agree to some spending, budget, and entitlement reforms in return for that permission. Entitlements — the chief drivers of the even greater explosion of debt now coming at us — appear to be off the table altogether as far as he’s concerned. And while the president insists that failing to meet the August 2 debt-limit deadline would unleash a train of calamities not seen since the Book of Job, he seems to be willing to risk them all in order to enact a set of tax increases that would yield largely trivial sums of revenue and whose only plausible justification could be the political appeal of envy.
There were other characteristically disconcerting moments too. There was the familiar insistence that everything about his administration is unprecedented. The president said, for instance:
What I have done — and this is unprecedented, by the way; no administration has done this before — is I’ve said to each agency, “Don’t just look at current regulations or don’t just look at future regulations, regulations that we’re proposing. Let’s go backwards and look at regulations that are already on the books and if they don’t make sense, let’s get rid of them.”
But of course, lots of presidents have thought of this particularly easy way to appear to be fighting bureaucracy. As the GAO has noted
, “Every president since President Carter has directed agencies to evaluate or reconsider existing regulations.”
There was the unwillingness to speak of victory in an ongoing war. There was the shamelessly cynical treatment of the gay-marriage question (“I’ll keep on giving you the same answer until I give you a different one, all right? And that won’t be today,” the president said.)
But overarching all of this there seemed to be a deep rage against the realities of the moment he has found himself in, and the part he has found himself playing in that moment. Like a lot of his erstwhile supporters, the president seems to have had higher hopes for Barack Obama, and seems unsure of how to vent his disappointment. Maybe he was naïve.