What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
No matter what happens with the eventual debt ceiling deal, one thing is certain: the political ground has now shifted under President Obama’s feet, and he and his strategists have yet to realize how seismic the shift has been.
Just listen to how furious and frustrated U.S. senators have become. “The president veers between talking like a peevish professor and a scolding parent,” fumed one senator. “I can only imagine the anger and disgust they [voters] have at witnessing a broken government and a president and members of Congress who can’t seem to even agree sometimes on what day it is, let alone to solve the nation’s debt crisis,” complained another. And yet another groused, “We are watching him [Obama] turn into Jimmy Carter right before our eyes.”
Are these the words of conservative Senator Jim DeMint, Pat Toomey, or Republican rock star Senator Marco Rubio? No, the three angst-riddled quotes above come from Democratic senators, not Republicans.
And here’s why. Zoom back and view the current debt ceiling debacle with a panoramic lens and consider how the aftermath is going to play in the public’s mind. Imagine for a moment that Mr. Obama were able to get everything he wants in the ensuing debt limit plan, his own perfect progressive spending spree fantasyland made true. What will he have won? What will he have accomplished in the minds of voters? The privilege of declaring that he, not his political opponents, exhibited the “courageous leadership” necessary to drag the nation farther out into the deepest and most dangerous economic waters the country has ever voyaged? What will he brag? That he beat the GOP to the punch in shackling our children and grandchildren with even more debt owed to China?
That’s hardly cause for a celebratory victory lap.
Indeed, how does a president claim credit for “winning the future” as he plunges the nation deeper into the financial abyss? That’s like a broke person cheering because he convinced his credit card company to increase his spending limit despite the fact that he already maxed out his card by buying a fleet of Ferraris. And for this the president and his advisers believe Mr. Obama will gain voters’ gratitude and adulation? Something tells me that’s a fight the Republican National Committee is more than happy to have.
But it gets worse—much worse—for Mr. Obama moving forward now. Because he has allowed the debt ceiling debate to become a dramatic race against the clock, Mr. Obama has positioned himself as the “sideline sitter president” who is weak and ineffectual. The average person looks at the mess in Washington and says, “Who’s in charge? How did it get to this point? Why hasn’t this been fixed and dealt with already?” In each instance, the answer is that the president has failed to lead and get the work done.
Mr. Obama recently went on national television and declared that the debt ceiling disaster is a “three-ring-circus.” But what he and his advisers have failed to grasp is that he is the ring leader. When it comes to the public’s perception of the nation’s fiscal health, the buck stops with the president. Period.
But perhaps most injurious of all to the president is what the debt ceiling fiasco —and Mr. Obama’s concomitant bungling of it—has done to his broader argument about government’s effectiveness in solving vexing social problems and its ability to engineer human flourishing, a view that is as far to the left as any American president in U.S. history has ever dared to veer. Voters look at the meltdown in Washington and say to themselves, “The president can’t even figure out how to pay our nation’s bills? And now he wants me to give him four more years and even more control over my life? Ha! Get real and get lost!”
Presidential leadership and the public’s stomach for ever-expanding government are twinned; as the former sours, the latter does too. After all, when Apple has more cash than the U.S. government, how can a progressive president argue that government should be granted more power and influence in solving the nation’s dire economic problems?
The political ground has shifted beneath the president’s feet in ways he and his campaign advisers have yet to comprehend. Come November 2012, they’ll finally get it.