Wonk-in-Chief

I am not sure why President Obama chose to address the nation last night. He certainly did not announce a deal to raise the debt ceiling. He did not announce that he was prepared to invoke the 14th Amendment option and unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. It was unclear to me that he added anything to the discussion and, at this later date, the time has passed to give the kind of “framing the issue” speech he delivered last night. President Obama’s political skills seem to have abandoned him precisely when he most needs them.

Take the issue of whether or not to permit a two-stage approach to raising the debt ceiling. It is a bad idea, to be sure. As the President said last night, “there’s an even greater danger to this approach. Based on what we’ve seen these past few weeks, we know what to expect six months from now. The House of Representatives will once again refuse to prevent default unless the rest of us accept their cuts-only approach. Again, they will refuse to ask the wealthiest Americans to give up their tax cuts or deductions. Again, they will demand harsh cuts to programs like Medicare. And once again, the economy will be held captive unless they get their way.” He was not as passionate on this issue as he was last Friday night. And, the President happens to be right on the merits. But, this is all inside baseball. The American people don’t care if politicians in Washington have to debate the issue again in six months, they care about the programs that the GOP is trying to cut. And, wouldn’t it be nice to see that kind of passion displayed in defense of Social Security? Instead, the President has set himself up for the charge Republicans are making that he is more concerned with the political calendar than with the particulars of any deal.

Why did the President not point out that one of the GOP’s chief complaints about his health care reforms was that the reforms engendered “uncertainty” in the business community? Why, then, are they now prepared to introduce such uncertainty regarding the debt ceiling?

The GOP has also charged that the President is engaged in class warfare. Would that it were so. The best part of Obama’s speech was when he dabbled in a little class warfare, saying, “Most Americans, regardless of political party, don’t understand how we can ask a senior citizen to pay more for her Medicare before we ask a corporate jet owner or the oil companies to give up tax breaks that other companies don’t get. How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries? How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don’t need and didn’t ask for?”

Still, look at those words again. I know, and the President and Speaker Boehner know, that a bizarre provision of the tax code permits hedge fund managers to pay the capital gains tax rate on their bonuses, even though those bonuses have nothing to do with the use of capital and are rewards for work. I know, and the President and Speaker Boehner know, that this tax provision permits the hedge fund managers to pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries. But, he needs to explain this to the American people who have not been paying attention to the debate as closely as he has. He needed to use this provision of the tax code, which is manifestly unfair, to stoke a little more anger. He might also have usefully pointed out, as the Washington Post did this morning, that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is one of the principal beneficiaires of campaign cash from the hedge fund managers who explit this loophole in the tax code.

The President was at his professorial best last night, but the nation does not need a professor. Where were the stories of real individuals who would be negatively impacted by the GOP’s budget cuts? Where was the invocation of the spirit of FDR, the spirit that says the American people are a great people, capable of rising to the challenges they face, but unwilling to sit by while plutocrats line their pockets. Where was the idea that the President was going to stand up for the little guy? Instead, the President gave a wonky speech, heavy on Beltway politics, and short of tales of the human cost of radical budget cuts. And, after the speech, the White House sent out David Plouffe to amplify the President’s case. Plouffe was a great campaign manager but he could not inspire a mouse to cheese.

Last Friday, I was relieved enormously when the talks between Speaker Boehner and President Obama broke down and the Speaker announced he would be negotiating with congressional Democrats. I would not want to play poker with Harry Reid, and not only because he comes from Nevada. I really would not want to play poker with Nancy Pelosi. But, President Obama? I would love to play poker with him.

I remember sitting in a bar in Cambridge in the winter of 2006, shortly before Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency, with a friend who had worked for him in the Senate and remained a key advisor. She told me that when you peel away the layers of the onion, in his heart of hearts, Obama was a wonk. Her insight seemed disproved to me by Obama’s oratory which spoke, and spoke profoundly, in the idioms and tradition of FDR. But, she was right. The President is a wonk. But, the nation and the Democratic Party need him to be a leader. Last night, his speech was a missed opportunity to transition from the one to the other, a transition that he needs to effect if he wants to win a second term.


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