The Supercommittee's Failure Had Nothing to Do With President Obama

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This is why the supercommittee failed: The GOP and Democrats are too far apart on the major issues to reach an agreement when anything short of a recession-triggering event is looming within a 12-hour horizon.
615 supercommittee REUTERS Mike Theiler.jpgREUTERS

The supercommittee has officially failed to reach a bipartisan deal to reduce the deficit. But there is always time, even in the smoldering ashes, for the committee to approach a bipartisan excuse for its failure to reach a deal. Judging from the flurry of Sunday-morning finger-pointing and Monday-morning PR emails to Washington journalists, it seems like one of the major themes to emerge from the blame game is that it's all President Obama's fault for not leading enough.

Here is Mitt Romney: "It is another example of failed leadership. He has not taken personal responsibility to get the super committee to find ways to balance the budget and cut spending."

Here is Rick Perry: "The whole reason a supercommittee was created was because the President wasn't willing to lead, wasn't willing to even put on paper his plans for cutting spending. It's amazing to what lengths he will go to avoid making tough decisions."

Here is Herman Cain: "Obama, again, is failing Americans, providing no leadership, and exacerbating our national debt to more than $15 trillion - over $48,000 for every American man, woman and child."

The idea of Obama as the Unleader has seeped even into the president's base, causing MSNBC host Chris Matthews to question whether the man he once fawned over on live TV still has his heart in the game: "He never tells us what he's going to do with reforming our health care systems, Medicare, Medicaid. How he's going to reform Social Security? Is he going to deal with long-term debt? How? Is he going to reform the tax system? How?" he said over the weekend. "I hear stories that you would not believe. Not a single phone call since the last election. He never calls -- that's the message."

So how about it: Is the supercommittee's failure the fault of President Obama?

Here's how you could answer yes, if cheekily: The president oversaw the creation of a legislative body that he had good reason to believe would fail. As Marc Ambinder writes in the National Journal, the failure of the supercommittee reflects well on his reelection campaign inasmuch as it paints Republicans as intransigents standing between the White House and higher taxes on the rich. That's a fight the White House isn't afraid of having:

Having allowed Congress to fail on its own, Obama is not about to take the reins of a process that could further erode voter confidence in him. He laid out his preferences in September, officials said. They include a $1.5 trillion tax hike, mostly on the wealthy, some cuts to entitlements and domestic spending, and a $1 trillion reduction in defense spending. 

Obama plans to lay the failure at the feet of Republicans, who, he will say, were constitutionally incapable of raising taxes on wealthy Americans. This sets the stage for an election-year debate about the Bush-era tax cuts for the top two income brackets.

And yet. There are at least four reasons why it's foolish to blame the president for the failure of a congressional supercommittee. First, he's not on the supercommitee, unlike the 12 senators and representatives who make up the supercommittee. Second, he's not a member of Congress, which means he couldn't even select the 12 members of the supercommittee, to which he doesn't belong. Third, contra Chris Matthews, the president has a deficit reduction plan. He released it in September 2011. Republicans berated him for not putting something down on paper, and then he put something down on paper, and they berated him for what he put down on paper. It didn't move the needle very much. Fourth, the idea that the supercommittee would have reached an agreement if Obama had been more hands-on implies that the thing keeping Rep. Jeb Hensarling and his colleagues from ripping up his tax pledge and voting for $1 trillion in new revenues was that the president wasn't calling him enough, which fails the smell test for me, as I imagine it does for Jeb Hensarling.

It's satisfying to blame the president for political failures in no small part because it's very simple. But there's an even simpler explanation for the supercommittee's failure. The Republican and Democratic parties are too far apart on the major issues to reach an agreement when anything short of a recession-triggering event is looming within a 12-hour horizon. They reached a debt ceiling deal because a default would have triggered a recession. They reached a deal on the Bush tax cuts because to let the tax cuts expire on every family might have triggered a recession. On the other hand, the sequester for the deficit committee does not "trigger" until January 2013. The deadline was real. But the enforcement mechanism was too delayed to enforce a compromise.

The bottom line is that the supercommittee -- and in particular, Republicans on the supercommittee -- failed itself. It didn't need any help.


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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