Despite the three-ring circus—House, Senate, White house—in Washington and its cast of crazies, incompetents, and craven souls, the debt ceiling crisis was significantly a consequence of Obama’s cumulative failings as a leader, partly understandable as they may be in the circumstances.
He is not to blame for the challenges to him and his presidency by a Republican Party, even before its invasion and infection by the Tea Party, which not only has long believed that the Democratic Party is illegitimate, but also regards him, a man of mixed-race, as anathema, to be opposed at every opportunity. Mitch McConnell has been forthright in declaring his first priority to be Obama’s defeat in 2012. So I share the widely held belief that this leader in the Republican Party represents its priorities: political power over—even at the expense of—economic recovery.
So Obama is not to blame that, in most instances, he chooses to “lead from the rear,” to work behind the scenes so that Republicans do not oppose worthy ideas reactively because they are his. However, on major issues which cannot be advanced behind the scenes, he is to blame that he has tried appeasement to avoid conflict and to appear reasonable; made concessions, whether reasonable or not, in advance of negotiations; and failed to achieve better, but attainable, results. We saw his preferred strategic approach in the case of health care reform: let the House and Senate squabble, then cobble together something inadequate but better than the current program.
He is to blame for using the same strategy when it is totally unsuited to the issue and allows his implacable opponents to treat him differently from other presidents because he acts differently from, but not better than, other presidents. His repeated attempts to overcome them by appeals to bipartisanship in defiance of repeated failures reflects a foolish consistency, the hobgoblin of his mind. The most recent instance was a simple issue which his back-and-forthing converted into a national crisis: raising the debt ceiling to pay debts incurred and due. Until now, raising the debt ceiling has been a standard ritual which results in a one-page piece of legislation specifying a new dollar amount and a new deadline. But Obama let it to become a complex and contentious one.
Obama did not say or do what any other president, I believe, would have said and done: he would sign such another bill and no other. He should have said that, in the absence of such a bill, he would authorize an increase in the debt ceiling on the basis of the Constitution’s authorization of debt, the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision which puts the validity of that debt beyond question, and, as a reminder, his oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
At the same time, he should have advised that existing laws governing expenses and revenues authorize additional debt between the signing of the debt ceiling law and its deadline. He should have said that, to avoid a significant repetition, fiscal reform must begin at once to avoid another debt ceiling debacle. He should have announced his intention to develop a specific, comprehensive proposal for the necessary reforms in all major legislation affecting expenses and revenues, and set a deadline nine months hence, in time for the 2012 election. He should also have indicated that, as a step in that direction, he would offer a specific, jobs-creating, economy-building set of proposals for enactment on the return of Congress after Labor Day (just recently promised).
Instead, by standing back, he allowed issues irrelevant to raising the debt ceiling to encumber a traditionally routine process and precipitate a crisis. Then he succumbed to his strategy of seeking bipartisanship by endorsing what would and has become a partisan committee which will reach no agreement on deficit reduction within a few months, a set of penalties presumably automatically triggered by its failure but which Congress will disarm first, and thus a return to the status quo ante. He is not to blame for having created the crisis; he is to blame for having aided and abetted it.
So too much cannot be said of Obama’s flawed leadership and his flawed legacy. I admired Obama's character and scorned McCain's (lack of) character; Obama, unlike McCain, possessed qualities desirable in a leader, but not the qualities of a leader. I soon detected and deplored his conflict-averse nature, which makes it impossible for him to lead when he faces opposition. He was decisive in deciding to attack Osama bin Laden’s compound, a decision not without difficulty but without domestic opposition. But in situations in which he faces domestic opposition, he is decisive in deciding not to lead.
Two cases in point. At the start of his administration, Obama chose to avoid controversy about an array of civil rights or human rights abuses by our government in violation of national and international law. He has prevented not only the prosecution, but also the investigation, of any of the alleged violations or their alleged perpetrators. In the case of torture, he has violated his oath of office and the laws of the land.
At about the same time, he chose to avoid controversy about the financial institutions and their leaders largely responsible for causing this country’s worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Again, he has discouraged not only their prosecution, but also their investigation. He helped their recovery without exacting any reforms as conditions of acceptance of assistance, in the naïve belief that they would not resist the modest reforms along the lines of previous but since abandoned regulations. And he did nothing about jobs or homes in depressed business and housing markets. So he did not show that he cared any more than Wall Street about Main Street because he did not demand that Wall Street do something about Main Street.
In other words, Obama does not judge, not that he be not judged, but that he be not judgmental and controversial by holding anyone accountable and taking any corrective action. As a result, he has set precedents for future presidents to invoke as justification of the inevitable repetitions of similar and other abuses in future administrations. Rule of law—what rule of law? HIs lack of leadership is thus inseparable from his legacy of legal and moral abdication, the more notable in a lawyer/teacher expert in the Constitution.
Still, an election looms most ominously. And once again, Americans will have a choice of the lesser of two evils. I refreshen the cliché by asking a simple question: would any of these current contenders and any of the possible late entrants be taken seriously by any of the Founding Fathers? The question answers itself.
Even so, I would prefer a choice between something like a Democrat and something like a Republican. But given his propensity to deal with Republicans and adopt their positions, I think the choice will be between Obama the moderate Republican who could find no political future in the GOP and either a panderer to the Tea Party or one from its stark, radical reactionaries. Given this choice, I shall vote for Obama instead of a deficient and dangerous candidate.
Two brief digressions. On the stump, Obama’s shows his infection by the Right, with his confusion about the role of government; one moment, it can do great good and only politics keeps it from doing that great good; next moment, Obama speaks of solutions emerging from, say, the cornfields of Iowa, from the fields of his dreams. Then, Perry’s candidacy raises several questions. Out of gallows humor, I ask three: Can the other 49 states secede from Texas? Would doing so make them “traitorous”? Would Texas treat them “ugly”? In seriousness, I ask two: How does Perry reconcile his impulse to secession with an impulse to preside over the country from which he would secede? How does he explain his aversion to the government and his desire to dismember much of it with the Constitutional and legal obligations of the office?
If given the option, increasingly unlikely, of a Republican candidate not beholden to the economic and political extremists, and religious fundamentalists (labeled and self-described as Christians) on the Right—if they have enough sense left to nominate such a candidate—I may vote for Romney, though he has begun to dabble in pitch and to defile himself, or Huntsman, who has yet to live up to his reputation.
In that event, I shall cast my second vote in my lifetime for a Republican presidential candidate, and I shall regard the second Democratic presidential candidate for whom I did not vote with the same scorn with which I regard the first one. Against a GOP candidate who can demonstrate leadership by defanging or defeating the rabid crazies and the frothy craziness on the Right, Obama will lose and deserves to lose. Indeed, I have lost most of my respect for the man who, despite his published introspections, never saw the truth about himself or never had the integrity to admit it to himself: that he may be a good man, he may be the better man for the job in these times, but he is not a man good enough for the job.