Post-'Cliff': A Celebrity President, a Leaderless Washington

Post-'Cliff': A Celebrity President, a Leaderless Washington

President Barack Obama is supposed to lead the country, but barely participated in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations except to berate Republicans in the media. As Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid is meant to move legislation through the upper chamber, but gave up and was sidelined by the Vice President. House Speaker John Boehner is meant to lead his caucus, but they rejected his proposals, and he barely held onto his job.

Welcome to post-“fiscal cliff” Washington, a leaderless chasm in which no one is bold enough to offer an agenda, nor confident enough to compromise. Even the Tea Party refuses to step up: it was ironic that Michele Bachmann cast the 218th vote that gave Boehner the bare majority he needed to retain the Speaker’s gavel. This is an age without a Reagan, without a Thatcher–without even a Ted Kennedy, on the other side.

President Obama marked the conclusion of the “fiscal cliff” deal by promising he would not negotiate with Congress on the debt ceiling. Likewise, Speaker Boehner promised he would no longer negotiate directly with the President. These are absurd promises that mock the spirit of the Constitution’s separation of powers, bold statements that are meant to convey strength but in reality betray the weaknesses of both party’s leaders. 

The branches must co-govern, even as they check each other’s power. Yet the separation of powers is something President Obama has never accepted, as he ignores Congress and writes regulations or makes appointments as he pleases. He resents the fact that Congress controls the debt ceiling, and there is now serious talk that he might simply ignore Congress by minting a $1 trillion coin and depositing it in the Treasury.

Meanwhile, in Congress, the Senate has treated the Republican-controlled House as if it were an illegitimate body, ignoring dozens of economic bills passed through the lower chamber even as it refuses to pass a budget. The “extremist” House compromised on the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, much to the annoyance of the GOP base, because Republicans accepted the reality of divided government. Not so the Democrats.

The new Republican temptation, as expressed by Boehner’s promise not to deal one-on-one with the President, is to withdraw from a political process in which good faith is punished by mockery and demands for more concessions. That is understandable, but mistaken. President Obama is actually weaker than ever, because there is no political will to enact further tax hikes, and because fiscal circumstances demand spending cuts. 

These are precisely the conditions under which Republican leaders should want to engage President Obama directly. The President does not want to negotiate because he knows he will have to make concessions–just as, during the campaign, he took little interest in debating Gov. Mitt Romney because he did not want to have to defend his record. The House has the opportunity, finally, to hold the President accountable for his debts.

But instead of inviting direct talks, Speaker Boehner had to reject them to retain his position. And so Republicans have re-elected a leader on a promise not to lead. It is almost as bad as watching Democrats re-elect Nancy Pelosi as Minority Leader after guiding her party to two successive defeats. 

Because there are few consequences for bad leadership, there is little good leadership. And so we stagger into the next crisis.