Not Obama’s fault, but now it’s his problem
NOTHING GETS your attention quite so quickly as a sharp kick in the assets, which is precisely what Americans have received over the last two weeks, thanks in large part to the polarized and paralyzed state of national politics. As the millions of average citizens who will depend heavily on a 401(k) for retirement income watch their nest egg scrambled before their very eyes, what may have seemed like a distant Washington charade about debt and deficit has suddenly acquired very real consequences.
To be sure, the stock market sell-off isn’t a reasoned response to the kick-the-can-to-a-committee deficit-reduction deal; if investors really judged the United States less creditworthy, bond prices would have fallen, pushing interest rates up, as buyers demanded more reward for the risk. But even in the face of Standard & Poor’s premature downgrading of US debt, the bond market hasn’t hiccupped. Instead, it’s the stock market that has caught the vapors.
In a rational world, investors, like the more responsible rating agencies, would at least await the results of this latest deficit committee before panicking. In the short term, however, the market operates as much on fear as logic. That was always the danger, of course, and any (supposedly) responsible policymaker should have realized as much.
The mainstream media’s tendency has been to view the problem as yet another partisan standoff, without pinpointing principal blame. But congressional Republicans created this quasi-crisis, first by using what should have been a routine debt-ceiling vote as leverage for budgetary brinksmanship, then by refusing to meet the president in the middle - or, for that matter, anywhere near it.
Certainly if Republicans had been as willing to compromise as Obama, a comprehensive deficit-reduction deal could have been struck, and likely passed. After all, to the dismay of liberal Democrats, Obama was willing to do most of the deficit reduction on the spending side. Further, the ratio of spending reductions to revenue increases he was willing to countenance was larger than those proposed by the various bipartisan deficit-reduction panels and Senate gangs.
Given that, it’s bizarre to watch conservative polemicists try to saddle Obama with the blame for the unconvincing deal, S&P’s downgrade, and the sharp slide in the stock market. That’s as disingenuous as . . . well, as the assertion that Obama is primarily responsible for creating the nation’s fiscal plight.
It’s mostly the president’s problem now, to be sure. But that’s very different from saying it is mostly his fault.
Indeed, the debt-ceiling debacle left Charles Fried, the clear-eyed conservative who served as Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general, praising Obama’s honest, analytical, straightforward style, while faulting his own party for dishonesty and pandering.
Nor are the American people gulled about who is responsible - or rather, irresponsible. Polls show that they, too, see the Republicans as more at fault than Obama - or, for that matter, congressional Democrats - for the failure to reach a comprehensive deal.
That’s not to absolve Obama of all blame. Despite his greater willingness to compromise, he did come late to the issue. And, sadly, it may be that he isn’t skilled or resolute enough to hold his own against unrelenting congressional opponents. But that’s a very different failing from creating the obstinate obstructionism.
Although he took belatedly to the airwaves, the president needs to present his case more clearly, more cogently, and more consistently, the more so because that case is complex. He must lay out why, even as we chart a long-term course toward restrained spending and increased revenues, we need a short-term focus on jobs and the economy.
He hasn’t explained those dual priorities well. Nor has he taken a needed cue from Ronald Reagan, who used to say that when you can’t make congressmen see the light, you can at least make them feel the heat. Obama remains reluctant to dial the rhetorical thermostat up enough even to make a congressman doff his suit coat.
He should, for to succeed, he needs voters to tell their representatives and senators they won’t abide legislators who prefer brinksmanship to compromise. And if he’s searching for an example of why the nation can no longer afford hyper-partisanship? Well, he should simply refer his fellow citizens to the roller-coaster ride their 401(k)s are on.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at email@example.com.