By Brigitte L. Nacos
Good presidents, exceptional presidents are leaders, not merely observers of and mediators between two or more sides with far-apart positions. President Obama’s distaste for taking the lead in policy controversies was once again on display during the just resolved budget fight that prevented a federal shutdown which would have inflicted harm on the just recovering economy. Instead of taking to the bully pulpit and resisting Tea Party Republicans’ my-way-or-the-highway threats, the president left it to the Republican speaker of the house and the Democratic leader in the Senate to fight it out.
Even as the clock ticked down towards the government shutdown, there were no strong public statements by the president. Reminding congressional leaders and rank and file members to act like adults magnified the president’s disengagement from the ideological infighting at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
But staying out of the fray at any cost relinquishes the tools and powers that come with the office of the president—among them the use of the bully pulpit to inform the public and explain why certain policies are right and others wrong.
Instead, when the Republicans got what they wanted and agreed to “compromise,” the president praised the architects of the agreement as historic spending cut as if that was what he wanted all along. It was a stunning statement.
“I want to think Speaker Boehner and Senator Reid for their leadership and their dedication during this process,” he said. “A few months ago, I was able to sign a tax cut for American families because both parties worked through their differences and found common ground. Now the same cooperation will make possible the biggest annual spending cut in history, and it’s my sincere hope that we can continue to come together as we face the many difficult challenges that lie ahead, from creating jobs and growing our economy to educating our children and reducing our deficit. That's what the American people expect us to do. That's why they sent us here.”
Thus, the president did not only celebrate the Republican-dictated compromise this time around but also the earlier agreement that kept the Bush administration’s tax cuts for the richest Americans in place. Moreover, he spoke of hope for further compromise in the future for which the GOP has far more radical plans to shift resources from low and middle income Americans to a small number of the wealthiest and corporate America.
Compromise is not the answer to demands and threats from radicals set to dismantle a social safety net that pales in comparison to those programs that are part and parcel of Western Europe’s capitalism with a human face. Nor should the president even think of compromise on social issues, such as the funding of Planned Parenthood programs, the EPA’s ability to enforce environmental protection regulations, or the funding of public broadcasting and television.
Needed for the next and far greater fights over budget and ideological issues is a strong leader in the White House, not a great compromiser.