Leadership in politics is more often discussed than demonstrated. In the current budget debate, which has and will touch on every hot-button issue from entitlements to taxes, an underlying debate between the parties has centered around which lawmakers are "showing leadership" and which are simply trying to take credit for it. Republicans claim President Obama has not been a leader. But what they see as a deficiency in leadership may simply be a disagreement over strategy in which the president actually displays many of the same qualities Republican leaders once praised.
"Bold, dynamic followership," reads the subject line of an email Monday from House Speaker John Boehner's office criticizing the president. Obama had a chance to define a plan for deficit reduction and entitlement reform in his State of the Union address, but he ducked that opportunity. Now that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan has offered a sweeping plan that addresses those issues, the president has announced that he will give a speech Wednesday on those topics. The congressman from Wisconsin took the lead in addressing the politically difficult issues, and the president trails in his wake. The body of the email from Boehner's office helpfully defines the words leader and follower.Continue »
Imagine a restaurant, Chez Polis, in which the chef and the manager are bitter rivals. One evening they bicker and almost come to blows over a meal. Their one patron is about to walk out but moments before he does, they declare a truce and deliver the smallest of three courses. They put the plate on the table and immediately start patting themselves on the back. This seems strange to the patron, who thought delivering a starter course was a restaurant's basic task.
This is the metaphor that comes to mind after leaders in Washington announced they had reached a hard-fought deal to avert a government shutdown. The fighting was rancorous and each side had to exercise restraint, which is rare in Washington. Making choices in a time of large deficits and a fragile economy is hard. Cutting government spending affects real people. It was an accomplishment. But it's also their job to do these things. Not all accomplishments achieved with heroic effort require heroic praise. Given the economic conditions in the country, it would have been lunacy to shut down the government, which all participants knew. So the voters might be forgiven if they view the self-congratulation with a little curiosity.Continue »
President Obama had another "Daddy's home!" moment on Tuesday. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have bickered themselves into a stalemate over how to fund government for the rest of the fiscal year, so Obama took to the White House briefing room to scold them into action. "It would be inexcusable for us not to be able to take care of last year's business," he said, "simply because of politics."
This was a departure for a president who has been trying to stay out of negotiations directly. It was a sign that progress had broken down--but also that Obama really does not want to risk a shutdown. It also cast doubt about prospects for agreement on the new and improved budget debate over government operations that was starting on the very day Obama was trying to settle the old and tired one. House budget committee Chairman Paul Ryan released a bold blueprint for the next 10 years that cuts $4 trillion, setting up a grand debate between the president and congressional Republicans over the role of government, the nature of leadership, the meaning of compromise, and, not incidentally, the central themes of the 2012 election.Continue »
Barack Obama launched his 2008 reunion tour today. Technically it's called a re-election, but the themes and images of the Obama 2012 campaign so thoroughly echo the last one, people might be excused for calling him Senator.
There are no images of the sitting president in the video (watch above). He appears briefly in two shots--both from the 2008 campaign. The video gives you a clear window into the Obama strategy. It is dominated by voters largely from swing states (Nevada, Colorado, and North Carolina) and largely female. They talk about the president and the next campaign in the loosest of terms. Their faces map to the Obama coalition--black, Latino, young.
This is the difference between being an incumbent and a challenger. Tim Pawlenty, for example, who wants people to be able to envision him as president, makes himself the star of a video. The images match the Hollywood version of what a president might look like. (Showing that he's the quick draw in the campaign, Pawlenty responded to Obama's video with another ad that felt like it should end with "In Theaters Soon.")Continue »
Immediately after President Obama spoke Monday night about the American mission in Libya, NBC aired a tribute to George Herbert Walker Bush. It was fitting, since Obama's speech had been a kind of tribute, too. Though the sweeping claims for American action at times made Obama sound like the more recent Bush president, the central message was the one associated with his father: prudence. (watch the full speech above)
Obama started with a clear mission statement. He promised to explain "what we have done, what we plan to do, and why this matters to us." He was very strong on Items 1 and 3 but got fuzzy on Item No. 2.
The president had a pile of reasons the United States had to get involved: Muammar Qaddafi was about to slaughter the residents of Benghazi; the international community was asking for U.S. assistance, as were the anti-Qaddafi forces within Libya; allowing Qaddafi to crack down would have weakened the pro-freedom movements in other Middle Eastern and North African countries; the authority of the United Nations was in question.Continue »
Golf season has returned, and with it jokes about the president's obsession with the game. Newt Gingrich has accused President Obama of cowering behind his putter in crisis. "It strikes me that the more difficult [the world] gets, the more the president golfs and the more the president hides," he said.
Golf jokes are a hardy presidential perennial. Democrats made so much fun of Eisenhower's frequent outings that Kennedy had to hide his regular golf matches for fear of catching the same grief. (Kennedy kept many things hidden.) Presidential golf jokes may be the laziest of all political humor, with the possible exception of jokes about presidential vacation time. Jokes about presidential appearance are also lazy, but they're just cheap shots: Golf jokes are not only intellectually lazy, but like teleprompter jokes, they encourage the audience to be lazy, too. No one has to bother thinking about what a president actually does.Continue »
This post originally appeared on Slate.
It's hard to take anyone seriously in politics these days. It's not that the politicians have gotten sillier--though an outbreak is always possible; it's that they talk about being serious so much, the word has lost all meaning.
Washington is obsessed with measuring seriousness. President Obama's televised discussion of his NCAA bracket proved he isn't a serious leader. House conservatives said GOP leaders weren't serious enough about cutting the deficit. Senate Republicans leveled that charge against their Democratic counterparts.Continue »
Sen. Chuck Schumer took to the Senate floor Wednesday to throw a drowning man an anvil. In order to avoid a government shutdown, Schumer advised House Speaker John Boehner to abandon Tea Party-backed Republicans and their inflexible requests to cut the budget for 2011 by $61 billion.
Political motivations aside--Schumer's advice was meant to make Boehner's job harder, not easier--Schumer has a point. Boehner does have a Tea Party problem. In the most recent vote to continue funding government operations, 54 House Republicans voted against their leadership. Of course, a week ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saw 10 Democrats vote against President Obama's proposal for spending reductions.Continue »
The battle over the first continuing resolution to keep the government operating didn't end with as much drama as some reviewers would have liked. Like most sequels, CR2 is likely to be even less dramatic. This time, Congress and the White House are facing a March 18 deadline, but all signals point to an agreement before then that will keep things running for two or three more weeks.Continue »
When former Washington Mayor Marion Barry mounted his political comeback after being caught smoking crack cocaine, he tried to turn his difficulties with drugs into an asset. "I'm in recovery," he said, "and so is my city." The pitch worked. Barry was re-elected, offering hope to all politicians who face a less acute but similar problem: how to handle that one liability that could sink your campaign.
There are three options: embrace, explain, or evade. In the last several weeks, we've seen examples of each approach from Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee as they all have tried to put the best gloss on what might appear to be the weaker parts of their resumes.Continue »
Of all the candidates to dish theories about President Obama's roots, you'd think Mike Huckabee would be the most careful. As a former Baptist minister, he has had to endure all kinds of weird questions about how his religion controls him and his hidden motives. Just before the Iowa caucuses in 2008, for example, he was questioned about subliminal cross imagery in one of his advertisements, on the theory that he was trying to send secret signals to evangelical voters. (As it was an ad about Christmas, the Christian signals were hardly secret.)
In a recent session with reporters, Huckabee said such questions--which treated him like some kind of oddity in part to excite the passions of viewers--were one of the reasons he could skip early debates without harming his potential candidacy. The inquiries are a bother, and they're not important to voters.Continue »
Do you have to be likable to be president? Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign will test this question more than any viable candidate since Richard Nixon.
For months, the former House speaker has said he would announce his presidential decision in early March. Several news outlets are reporting that he'll form an exploratory committee this week. Anyone who saw him speak to the Conservative Political Action Conference three weeks ago would not be surprised: He was clearly mounting some kind of campaign. He entered not from the wings, where senators and House members had shuffled to the stage, but instead emerged from a side door on the second floor of the vast ballroom. As he descended the stairs, "Eye of the Tiger" blasted from the speakers. Avoiding the direct route to the stage, he waded through the crowd, which greeted him with cries of "Caesar! Caesar!"Continue »
Mike Huckabee starts his new book A Simple Government by talking about the family. Its health is not just a moral requirement for a stable society, he writes, but an economic one. He says there is a $300 billion "Dad deficit" because fathers do not care for their children. Two-thirds of the children who live in poverty wouldn't be in poverty, he writes, if their parents were married. The message from the Republican Party lately has mostly been about reducing spending and cutting the budget. Huckabee wants that conversation expanded. "I wanted to stake out a position and say: 'Please don't tell me that social conservatism is irrelevant. It is connected to economic conservatism.' "With such a focus on the family, he was upset at the president's decision on Wednesday not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. He sees the decision as a shift to a broader support for gay marriage (which Obama still does not support). "He himself didn't take this position when he ran for president," Huckabee told me in an interview (watch the full interview at left). "I think if he had, he wouldn't be president. ... I don't think the president sits down and says. 'Hmm, let's destroy the family.' I mean, I don't think that. I think he thinks he's either got to do this for political reasons or maybe he really believes it--I don't know. But I do know there is a definite economic impact of the breakup of families in this country," he says. "One decision isn't going to destroy the family, the family's pretty strong. It may destroy him, may destroy his credibility, may destroy his campaign and candidacy and ultimately his term in office." Continue »
originally appeared on Slate.
The only way President Obama and congressional Republicans may get a budget deal is if they make it look like it will never happen. The president said as much last week. "Both sides will have to do some posturing and speak to constituencies and rally the troops," he said. But he also expressed faith "that there will be a reasonable and responsible and toned-down conversation."
The difference between the two kinds of communications is the difference between what's said in the negotiating room and what's said in front of the microphones. Bash them in public, work with them in private: That's the operating principle, but as both the president and House Speaker John Boehner have demonstrated, narrowcasting to your base is difficult in the hypernews environment where your words can get away from you.
The best illustration of the two-track conversation came last year during the negotiations over extending the Bush-era tax cuts. On Dec. 4, 2010, Vice President Joe Biden gave the White House radio address while the president was visiting the troops in Afghanistan. He criticized Republicans for their push to deny benefits to the unemployed and raise taxes on the middle class. He suggested it was un-American and not in keeping with the spirit of the holiday season.Continue »
Before President Obama's news conference Tuesday, he met with his predecessor George H.W. Bush. They could have traded war stories about budget fights. Obama was about to talk about the one he was starting. The 41st president could have talked about the fights that finished him politically. Or he could have offered a warning based on a question he received at a town hall debate during the 1992 campaign. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot had been squabbling about how to reduce the deficit and debt. A woman stood up and asked how the debt affected each of them. Bush famously flubbed the question, seeming a few fairways away from regular Americans in his response. But the question was as revealing as Bush's out-of-touch answer. The woman didn't understand how the debt affected the lives of Americans and why she should care.
Politicians haven't gotten better at delivering this message to people. Why do we have to reduce the deficit? And do we have to do it quickly? How will a smaller deficit improve the life of the average citizen?Continue »