The White House is upset with my post this week, "You May Be Right, Mr. President, But This Is Crazy." That surprises me because I credited President Obama with reaching further toward compromise than House Republicans. I also said he was winning the political debate.
Those two points angered Obama-hating conservatives who flooded my in-box. I expected that. What I didn't see coming was the defensive reaction of White House spokesmen who essentially argued that because of GOP intransigence, the president is unable to avert the $1.2 trillion in sequestration budget cuts — much less forge a "grand bargain" to tame runaway debt.
"Your point ... in this piece and in a bunch of others in between seems to be that, because he's president, Obama is obligated to do all the compromising himself," wrote a senior White House official, whom I agreed not to identify. "Essentially what you're saying is that he should respond to the GOP's absolute refusal to compromise by giving in to them entirely."
Actually, that's not what I'm saying. Ignore the straw man. My point is this: Unlike presidential aides and liberal allies, I don't think the president is politically impotent. I think he has the personal skills and power to lead, to fix this crazy mess.
It would require compromise, something the president has expressed a willingness to do. True problem-solving leadership also would require making tough choices that would anger his liberal base far more than the president is doing now; imposing sacrifice on all voters, including the middle class; and risking his high approval ratings. And, yes, he can't do it without Republicans.
"If you have a realistic idea on how to make the GOP put the country before party and compromise, I would like to hear it," Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer tweeted to me.
Pfeiffer had just posted his objection to a spirited New York Times column by David Brooks, who rebuked both parties for failing to lead: "For anyone reading David Brooks' column, here is the President's detailed sequester plan that he doesn't think exists (link)"
I replied: "let us know when you've got a deal and the government your running isn't headed over a cliff again. #ThisIsCrazy"
I regret the obnoxious tone. I was trying to reinforce the point of my post on presidential leadership.
That began an exchange in which Pfeiffer challenged me, fairly so, to present my plan for dealing with the GOP.
Call it a cop out, but my reply was honest: ".@pfeiffer44 Very fair point. If I had one, I might be President. Luckily for the nation, I never presumed to lead. Those who did now must"
One of my favorite progressive bloggers, Greg Sargent of The Washington Post, e-mailed me to say it's fair to ask whether the president could do more to get cooperation from Republicans. "But isn't it also fair to ask: Is there anything the president could do that would get more cooperation from Republicans, aside from giving them everything they want?"
My answer to Sargent was that I am optimistic enough about our system of government "and in human nature to believe now is not the time to wave the white flag on compromise and governing." There must be something a great leader can do to avoid a self-inflicted crisis.
And isn't greatness what Obama signed up for in 2008? I'd like to believe he has it in him. "To accept the conceit that there is nothing the president can do is to accept a grim future," I e-mailed Sargent. "I won't."
Sargent filed a post on the exchange with Pfeiffer and posed two questions to his readership that I will try to answer:
1. What more, if anything, could Obama actually do to win cooperation from today's Republican Party on averting the sequester, short of giving in to the GOP demand that we replace it only with spending cuts? Again, I am not the president, but the first thing that comes to mind is that an all-spending-cuts solution is not out of the question. Indeed, it's what Obama and the country are going to get if a deal is not reached March 1.
Second, there are several proposals on the table that would postpone the deadline; that might give both sides time and space to negotiate. Ideally, the short-term crisis is averted and both sides grow up: Republicans recognize that we can't avoid a debt crisis without raising taxes more, and Democrats agree to trim entitlements beyond Obama's vague (but admirable) concessions. The GOP needs to be less strident. Obama needs to be more engaged.
Finally, the president could go nuclear: Give up on compromise, wage a perpetual campaign, and try to gain Democratic control of the House in 2014. This is a long shot, given GOP advantages due to redistricting and the paucity of swing districts in the House.
The fact is, Obama has more at stake in the sequester fight than Republicans. The arbitrary cuts would hurt the economy. A major slowdown would sap Obama's political capital and jeopardize his agenda.
2. Which side's approach to averting the sequester, and solving the deficit, (do I) actually agree with? I honestly don't have a strong opinion. Like most independent voters, I just want it fixed. I want my leaders to lead.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.