Preener in Chief

by Yuval Levin

The results of the 2010 elections raised the question of what the president’s role would be in the legislative process in a period when the two houses of Congress were run by two different parties. It could have turned out that such a situation would give the president more power—making the Democratic senate irrelevant and creating a dynamic of direct engagement between the Republican House and the chief executive. Or it could have turned out that such a situation would give the president less power—making it so difficult to get legislation through congress that on significant issues the president would basically have to sign anything that reached his desk, since not much would. The latter was always more likely, but perhaps a deft executive could have made the former happen.

 

Barack Obama is, of course, very far from a deft executive, and in the course of 2011 and 2012, especially on fiscal issues, we learned that it was the latter outcome that would come to pass. Our various budget showdowns have all begun with attempts at a House-White House deal and have all ended with a House-Senate process (or more precisely a Senate-House process, with apologies to the Constitution’s origination clause). Obviously the fact that Obama is a Democrat and not a Republican has given these deals their general direction, but the details have been worked out in Congress. This has been in part because both Boehner and Obama seem to think a House-White House deal has to a big bargain, but it’s also in part because a divided congress just naturally makes such deals difficult.

 

The election apparently hasn’t changed that, and the fiscal cliff “process” now seems to be making its way toward roughly the same conclusion. This has to do with the president’s ineptness at negotiation (and indeed at much of anything except self-congratulation and campaigning) but, again, it also has to do with the dynamics of a divided congress, which would take a truly exceptional chief executive to overcome. But you wouldn’t have to be all that exceptional to accept this reality and make the most of it, rather than spend the days leading up to the conclusion of each of these fiscal showdowns desperately trying to draw attention to yourself and make your role look more central and significant than it is. The president’s appearance on Meet the Press today was downright pathetic in this regard, as have been his various press statements in the past few days. This sort of preening and lecturing from a politician who has basically just failed to do his job is bizarre.

 

Mr. President, you’re going to sign whatever congress ultimately passes, assuming something passes. Sometimes that’s just how it is for a president, any president. Can we not just accept that? And if the fiscal cliff is followed immediately by the next round of debt-ceiling talks, might we just start those with House-Senate negotiations and have them pass a bill and send it down the street like they’re supposed to, rather than go through weeks of pointless private White House drama and public presidential hectoring about how reasonable Barack Obama is compared to everybody else?