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Obama's new role: Babysitter-in-chief

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about the possible government shutdown, April 5, 2011, at the White House in Washington.
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about the possible government shutdown, April 5, 2011, at the White House in Washington. AP Photo

This post originally appeared on Slate.

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.

Addressing last year's unfinished business, the president said he wanted everyone to "act like grownups" but argued that he and Democrats had compromised by meeting Republicans halfway on their demands. He said he'd hold meetings at the White House until both parties worked something out. We've seen this posture from the president before--chiding politicians for playing politics when the American people just want to see something get done. He played this role during the debate over the Bush tax cuts last year, letting the two sides bicker and then, after they'd exhausted themselves, walking into the basement rec room and getting the sweaty, red-faced teenagers to shake hands.

This time, though, the president seemed irritated that he had to engage. "I shouldn't have to oversee a process in which Congress deals with last year's budget when we only have six months left," he said. Oversee is a slightly kinder word than baby-sit, but that was the thrust of the president's view. Republicans pointed out that the president was fussing about having to break up the game-playing but that it was Democratic leaders in control of both chambers of Congress last year who turned the whole business into a game by not passing a budget. (In fairness to Democratic leaders, that wasn't mere game-playing. That was serious duty-shirking.)

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While the president seemed irritated he had to straighten out members of Congress, Ryan was receiving praise for his bold act of leadership. In a town obsessed with the need to be serious about the budget, Ryan won the grand prize. Not only was his plan big, but it met a key Washington seriousness test: He was willing to court political disaster to meet his goals.

Trouble was quick in coming. His plans to reform Medicare and Medicaid, just two of myriad proposals, were deemed by the Congressional Budget Office to have politically toxic potential outcomes. According to a preliminary report (which credited the plan with increasing GDP and national income due to deficit reduction), the Ryan plan would cause the elderly on Medicare to pay more for their health care. Less politically volatile, the CBO also said the plan would lead to reduced benefits for Medicaid recipients.

If the Ryan plan was bold on the leadership front, it was weak on the political front. As Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget outlined the problem: It's never going to pass in a Congress in which Democrats control the Senate. "The national discussion has moved beyond just finding a plan with sufficient savings to finding one that can generate enough support to move forward," she wrote.

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This marked the difference between Ryan's conception of leadership and Obama's. Obama say he shares Ryan's goals, but he was relatively timid in the budget he released this year. He could have endorsed his deficit commission's recommendations, but he didn't. This, White House aides have argued for weeks, was a tactical decision. Had Obama put forward a bold plan or endorsed his commission, it would have become the "Obama Plan." That immediately would have created a polarizing dynamic. For ready examples, they point to last year's health care battle.

A president, they argue, must exercise a more subtle kind of leadership when it comes to complicated issues such as entitlement reform. Republicans had control of both houses of Congress when George Bush offered his plan to reform Social Security in his 2005 State of the Union address, but the plan still couldn't get through.

Obama has not been engaged in the debate about the current year's budget directly. But this larger debate over the role of government is the one he wants to have. In presenting his plan, Ryan said he was promoting a cause, not a budget. The president would agree. He has been putting forward the philosophy behind his cause since the State of the Union in January. Ryan believes that shrinking government will spur the economy. The president says cuts are necessary, but so are investments in education, infrastructure, and alternative energy.

The president's political and governing posture can be summed up in a single word: "balance." Just as with his remarks at the podium Tuesday, that's the message of his larger budget approach. In a sense, he needs Ryan so that he can play his preferred role as balancer. The White House engaged immediately in the larger budget fight. "While we agree with his ultimate goal, we strongly disagree with his approach," said a White House statement. "Any plan to reduce our deficit must reflect the American values of fairness and shared sacrifice. Congressman Ryan's plan fails this test. It cuts taxes for millionaires and special interests while placing a greater burden on seniors who depend on Medicare or live in nursing homes, families struggling with a child who has serious disabilities, workers who have lost their health care coverage, and students and their families who rely on Pell grants."

After the president left the press room, White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked why issues always had to come to a crisis point before they were resolved. On tough issues, that's sometimes the only way politicians will focus. Crisis feelings about the deficit converted many of the Republicans who now decry Washington spending but once voted to increase it significantly when they were in power. Carney said crisis arrangements weren't the preferred method, but they're not all bad for this president. If the debates didn't go to the brink, Obama wouldn't be able to play the adult arriving to make things right.

Below, John Dickerson interviews GOP Rep. Jeff Flake about the budget showdown and who will be to blame if there is a government shutdown:


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