Why "Leadership" Won't Fix Washington's Problems

Intel Photos / Flickr

With his latest column, Washington Post's Eugene Robinson joins the chorus of pundits who insist President Obama force congressional cooperation and find a deal to avert the sequester. Conveniently forgetting this mess is a direct product of Republican intransigence and anti-tax extremism—there is no sequester if there is no debt ceiling crisis—Robinson focuses on Obama's negotiating skills as the reason for this predicament:

Obama figured that Republicans would be so horrified at the prospect of deep defense cuts that they would make a deal on his terms, even after being forced to accept a humiliating defeat — and a modest tax increase for the wealthy — in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations two months ago.

And since there are no entitlement cuts in the sequester, Robinson argues neither side has an incentive to compromise, since neither side will lose something valuable:

Entitlement spending is largely untouched, and defense spending isn’t the sacred cow it once was. Thus neither party has an incentive to make concessions, at least until the true impact of the cuts is felt.

As he notes at the end of his column, "[I]t took both Obama and the Republicans to get us into this mess — and nobody has a clue how to get us out of it."

What's frustrating about this perspective—shared across the Beltway establishment—is its aggressive disregard for recent history. We know three things about the current situation: First, the White House crafted the sequester as a way to satisfy GOP demands during the debt ceiling crisis. House Republicans had taken the economy hostage, and automatic spending cuts—scheduled for after the election—were the best available way to defuse the situation and protect the fragile recovery.

Moreover, we know the White House has repeatedly offered entitlement cuts—as part of a "grand bargain," as part of a deal on the "fiscal cliff," and just last week, as part of a deal to avert the sequester. Pace Robinson, Democrats have been willing to put entitlements on the chopping block, even if our short-term deficits have little to do with spending on the elderly.

We also know—thanks to excellent reporting from a wide variety of sources, including the Post—that Republicans have been the main hold-ups in finding a deal. They refuse to accept new revenue—not new taxes, new revenue. Since the election, Republicans have rejected tax hikes on the rich—despite their broad popularity—and walked away from a chance to close loopholes and simplify the tax code. Yes, the House voted to raise taxes from their Bush-era lows with the fiscal cliff deal, but Republicans were passengers on that ride—just 85 House Republicans voted for the deal. The remaining votes—all 172 of them—came from Democrats.

Given all of this, how exactly is Obama supposed to force an outcome? Pundits seem to think this is a function of leadership, but that's an odd view of American politics. As Ryan Lizza notes for the New Yorker, leadership is often less important than simply having the votes:

The boring fact of our system is that congressional math is the best predictor of a President’s success. This idea is not nearly as sexy as the notion that great Presidents are great because they twist arms in backrooms and inspire the American people to rise up and force Congress to bend to their will. But even the Presidents who are remembered for their relentless congressional lobbying and socializing were more often than not successful for more mundane reasons—like arithmetic.

We can attribute Franklin Roosevelt's successful presidency to "leadership," or we can note that he entered the White House with a massive cohort of allies in Congress. Seventy-four out of 96 seats in the Senate belonged to Democrats, and three others were held by Midwestern progressives from the Farmer Labor Party and the Wisconsin Progressive Party. In the House of Representatives, Democrats controlled 334 seats, with 13 others going to members of said progressive third parties.

Certainly, Roosevelt shaped the agenda, but ultimately, it passed because his side controlled more votes than the other. The same was true for Lyndon Johnson, and it was true for the first two years of Obama's term, which—by any measure—was an astounding rush of legislative activity.

Indeed, those two years is all the evidence you need to dismiss the notion that "leadership" has something to do with the current impasse. When Congress was controlled by Democrats and spending cuts weren't on the agenda, Washington got stuff done, with Obama at the forefront. And now that Republicans have a foothold, things have ground to a halt.

Obama could devote the rest of his term to satisfying GOP demands. But it's up to them to budge. If you want Congress to do something, you should direct your complaints to Congress—a co-equal branch of government—and not the guy whose main job is to carry out their directives.

You may also like