Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The incredibly shrinking president

Ruth Marcus, not a raving conservative, expresses frustration with President Obama for being a "strangely passive president." She bemoans his lack of leadership on issues from the health care debate to the situation in Libya. She admits that she is ideologically supportive of Obama, but she sure wishes the guy would speak up.
Where, for example, is the president on the verge of a potential government shutdown - if not this week, then a few weeks from now?

Aside from a short statement from the Office of Management and Budget threatening a presidential veto of the House version of the funding measure, the White House - much to the frustration of some congressional Democrats - has been unclear in public and private about what cuts would and would not be acceptable.

By contrast, a few weeks before the shutdown in 1995, Clinton administration aides had dispatched Cabinet members and other high-ranking officials to spread the message that cuts in education, health care and housing would harm families and children. Obama seems more the passive bystander to negotiations between the House and Senate than the chief executive leading his party.
Well, she can take comfort in the tactical approach of Obama. If he doesn't say anything, then he doesn't open himself up to criticism for what he does or doesn't propose.

Marcus is waking up to the true character of President Obama that conservatives were highlighting back in 2007 and 2008. There is very little there there. He likes to make grandiose speeches with lots of fine rhetoric, but falls down when it comes to actual policy-making.
He performs best on a stage that permits the grandest sweep. He rises to the big occasion, from his inspiring introduction to the public in his 2004 Democratic convention speech to his healing words in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings.

The president has faltered, though, when called on to translate that rhetoric to more granular levels of specificity: What change, exactly, does he want people to believe in? How, even more exactly, does he propose to get there? "Winning the future" doesn't quite do it.
And when it comes to the major issue of our day - our nation's fiscal future, President Obama is ducking the question. He's fine with gestures, but not actual effort to address the looming crisis.
My biggest beef is with the president's slipperiness on fiscal matters. Obama has said he agrees with some of his fiscal commission's recommendations and disagrees with others. Which ones does he disagree with? I asked this question the other day of Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Here's what I got: "The view espoused by some of the . . . commission that we ought to do Social Security 100 percent off of benefit cuts for sure he doesn't agree with." But of course, the plan that 11 of the commission members endorsed did nothing of the sort.

I was unfair to Goolsbee because I asked him a question he didn't have the leeway to answer. You can't blame the aide for ducking when the boss fudges.

Where's Obama? No matter how hard you look, sometimes he's impossible to find.
Well, Ms. Marcus, he is just doing what he has done so much of his political life. He is voting present.