Return of the fighter

Accused of being disengaged, Obama is now taking the battle to the Republicans

Return of the fighter

Carolyn Kaster/AP

As they argue amongst themselves heading into the first primary votes next month, Republican presidential hopefuls can agree on this much: President Barack Obama has been “absent,” “missing,” “nowhere” and ineffectual on the most pressing issues of the day.

“He’s done nothing” on the debt, said Mitt Romney at a campaign stop last month. “He has completely disengaged from his job,” Michelle Bachmann told Fox News in November. Obama has shown “no leadership” on China, according to Jon Huntsman, and a “lack of leadership” on Syria, according to Rick Perry. On the economy, quipped Bachmann: “It’s been like, Where’s Waldo?”

It’s something of a U-turn from what Republicans argued in the prelude to the mid-term elections in 2010: that a power-hungry Obama was steamrolling America into an unrecognizable socialist state. That line helped sweep Tea Party candidates into Congress and gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives. But all of a sudden, they say, Obama is fiddling his thumbs—particularly in the face of America’s US$15-trillion debt.

The line of criticism hasn’t been limited to Republicans. Alice Rivlin, who the President appointed to a bipartisan panel on the debt in 2010—he shelved its recommendations—also spoke out, after another panel, the bipartisan congressional “super-committee,” failed to fulfill its mandate of finding $1.2 trillion in cuts. “The President and the leadership of Congress could have cut a deal that the committee would have approved,” she said, calling the failure a “huge missed opportunity.” Likewise, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “It’s the chief executive’s job to bring people together and to provide leadership. I don’t see that happening.”

In response, Obama has said Republicans have made it their mission to block his efforts since they took control of the House. White House aides emphasize that Obama engaged in intense negotiations with Republican House Speaker John Boehner during the debt ceiling crisis last summer—only to see their attempt to reach a “grand bargain” of almost $4 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade fall apart because Boehner couldn’t bring hardline lawmakers in the Republican caucus along on a bargain that would have both cut spending on entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security and raised taxes. Having called the Republicans’ bluff, Obama decided to stay out of the doomed negotiations this fall.

His detachment may have been one part personality, one part strategy.

Obama is not a chummy, backslapping pol who frequently socializes with lawmakers on the Hill. Sure, he has had a Super Bowl party here and a golf game there. But he seems to relish neither the legislative sausage-making on Capitol Hill nor engaging emotionally with voters. His cool, Spock-like demeanour isn’t the salve many are necessarily looking for in the midst of a jobs and foreclosure crisis. Some Democrats fear it’s downright disastrous. On Tuesday, a Democratic lawmaker seemed to give the Republicans more fodder. Dennis Cardoza, a California congressman who is not running for re-election, blogged that the President is “arrogant” and “alienating” and declared that, “it has become obvious to me that the President might prefer to be a university professor rather than do the job he holds today.” He wrote that the President liked to give lecturing speeches but “really avoided personal contact with members of Congress and folks outside the Beltway.”

It was the political left that first hurled such accusations at Obama—that he was too hands-off during the health care reform turmoil. Indeed, Obama declined to put forward a detailed health care reform plan, preferring to set out a few general principles and letting lawmakers battle it out. In that case, though, it was a deliberate strategy based on lessons learned from the experience of Bill Clinton, who attempted to impose a health reform on Congress only to have lawmakers balk. Obama paid a high price: the legislation was almost derailed and the drawn-out process allowed for a summer of angry town halls that energized the Tea Party movement.

He admitted to miscalculation. “I, out of an effort to give Congress the ability to do this thing and not step on their toes, probably left too much ambiguity out there, which then allowed opponents of reform to come in and fill up the airwaves with a lot of nonsense—everything from this ridiculous idea that we’re setting up ‘death panels’ to false notions that this was designed to provide health insurance to illegal immigrants,’’ Obama told ABC News in September 2009.

But in the end, the President did get his universal health care reform passed—something various presidents have pined for since Theodore Roosevelt. And in the case of the failed super-committee debt talks, the country still ends up with $1.3 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. (Legislation passed over the summer said automatic spending cuts of roughly $1 trillion would be triggered in 2013 if the super-committee failed to reach agreement.)

And however “detached” his leadership style, Obama has enjoyed numerous other successes. He came into office facing a financial crisis that some said could plunge the country into another Great Depression. He orchestrated a variety of responses, including a stimulus bill, an auto industry bailout and financial services regulation aimed at preventing another catastrophe. He eliminated Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders, and played a leading role in precipitating the fall of a dictator in Libya, without the loss of American lives. He is also making good on a key campaign promise of removing U.S. troops from Iraq. And he doubled fuel economy standards and concluded trade agreements. “When the dust settles and we’re 20 years down the road from the Obama presidency, even if his presidency ended tomorrow, it would be a significant presidency that would stack him up favourably compared to other Democrats going back to FDR,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential politics specialist at the University of Texas in Austin.

And as the Republicans roll out their campaign script for 2012, Obama is also rolling out a new one of his own. In 2008, he campaigned as the post-partisan candidate. But now he is seeking to shift the focus from his record to the ideology of his opponents.

In a fiery, nearly hour-long speech in Kansas on Dec. 6, he laid out the template for his re-election bid: that it is the Republicans who would radically remake America. “This is a make or break moment for the middle class and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class,” he declared. “Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.” Of Republicans, Obama charged, “Their philosophy is simple: we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. I am here to say they are wrong.”

Democrats hailed the speech as the most important of his presidency. But the approach carries a risk. In a 60 Minutes interview after the philosophy-heavy speech, Obama was asked whether it wasn’t his job to find solutions and get results. He began his answer: “It is my job to put forward a vision of the country that benefits the vast majority of Americans . . . ”

Without skipping a beat, the Republican National Committee was out with a new anti-Obama ad: “America needs jobs,” it said. “Not merely a vision.” On that much, all Americans can at least agree.

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