Why is John Boehner Leading From Behind?

National Journal

When an anonymous Obama adviser described the president's nuanced approach to Libya in 2011 as "leading from behind," a GOP talking point was born. Republicans knowingly distorted the quote into a campaign attack. "President Obama," House Speaker John Boehner said four months before last year's election, "needs to learn that when it comes to jobs and the economy "˜leading from behind' is not good enough."

Now who's leading from behind, Mr. Speaker?

In a condescending and fact-challenged op-ed published today, the leader of the GOP-controlled House figuratively patted Obama on the head for finally dealing directly with Capitol Hill. "All these bipartisan discussions are encouraging, and Republicans hope they will lead to real solutions that help American families," he wrote in the Washington Post. "But presidential leadership is really what's needed."

I have not hesitated to criticize Obama for a lack of urgency and engagement on the budget -- for failing to budge Republicans from their no-compromise position. The President of the United States shouldn't settle for being the least-obnoxious negotiator, the only adult in the room. "Knowing who's at fault doesn't fix the problem," I wrote in February to the ire of White House officials. "You may be right, Mr. President, but this is crazy."

Now that Obama is at least appearing to lead from the front -- dining with GOP senators and practically camping out this week on Capitol Hill -- Boehner has become Speaker Behind. First, he petulantly declared that he wouldn't participate in any more one-on-one negotiations with the president. And now he writes a pass-the-buck op-ed titled, "Less Charm, More Courage."

Boehner: "While this may have been the first time some of my colleagues have heard the president's arguments so personally and directly, I've heard them all many times before."

Talk about passive aggressive. You can almost picture Boehner puffing a cigarette and yawning while watching TV coverage of Obama's so-called charm offensive.

Boehner: "If we're going to find bipartisan solutions, the president will have to move beyond the same proposals and Democratic dogma."

Yes, a serious deficit-reduction package would require the president and Senate Democrats to cut spending and adjust entitlements more than they wish. But the president has agreed to discuss entitlement reform, just as the GOP has already raised taxes by $600 billion. Obama and Boehner should give each other credit for those tiny steps and build upon them: Raise more revenue and enact painful entitlement reforms.

Boehner: " ... Washington owes the people a responsible, balanced budget. The plan Republicans introduced this week balances the budget in 10 years."

No. It does not. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's 10-year budget plan is hypocritical and unattainable. First, the Ryan budget would retain the $716 billion cut to Medicare that was part of Obama's health care overhaul. Yes, that's same $716 billion cut Ryan pledged to eliminate as the GOP's vice presidential candidate. And, in a rare double flip-flop, Ryan counted on the same Medicare savings in his past budgets.

Second, his sleight-of-hand budget would perpetuate the onerous "sequester" cuts to domestic programs that Republicans condemn. Finally, his math doesn't add up unless the Affordable Care Act is abolished, which Ryan knows will not happen while Obama is in office.

Boehner: "I don't underestimate the difficulty of this task, especially given that Senate Democrats have no interest in balancing the budget."

Unfortunately, he's right about that. The Senate Democratic plan does not pretend to balance the budget and Obama is suddenly backing away from his past support for balanced budgets. "Ultimately, it may be that the differences are just too wide" to get a deal, the president told ABC News this week. "That won't create a crisis. It just means that we will have missed an opportunity."

Obama is misleading the public. He is overstating the impact of "sequestration" cuts on the deficit, and misstating the views of deficit hawks Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. What Obama didn't tell Americans during the ABC interview is that the Congressional Budget Office believes the deficit will rise once again after 2015, adding a total of $7 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years. Bowles and Simpson now say the United States is far from accomplishing the amount of deficit reduction needed to put the government on sustainable path.

Boehner: "By shifting the focus from charm to courage, and eventually action, we can guarantee our children a future where everyone has the opportunity to find work and pursue their piece of the American dream. That would be the grandest bargain of all."

Then why, Mr. Speaker, aren't you leading?