Do we have a president or a perpetual candidate? It’s not an entirely unfair question.
Even as Barack Obama was warning of the dreadful consequences of the budget sequester looming on March 1, he spent days away from Washington, apparently out of touch with Democratic as well as Republican congressional leaders.
In the meantime, Obama fans were lobbing verbal grenades at none other than The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.
His offense: He’s continuing to make it clear, as he did in his book “The Price of Politics,” that it was Obama’s then-chief of staff and now Treasury Secretary Jack Lew who first proposed the dreaded sequester.
This inconvenient fact threatens to interfere with the ready-for-teleprompter narrative that the Republicans want to cut aid to preschoolers in order to save tax breaks for corporate jets.
It appears that Obama prefers delivering such messages to crowds of adoring supporters over actually governing.
His theory seemed to be that if he kicked his job approval rating up a few points, Republicans would agree to the revenue increases he is promoting, just as they agreed to a tax rate increase in the “fiscal cliff” showdown.
But his job rating continues to hover just above 50 percent. That’s not nearly high enough to compel cooperation.
In addition, his campaign rhetoric undercuts his credibility with politicians of the opposite party and perhaps of his own.
It’s not that these people resent being criticized. They understand that that is part of the game.
But the substance of the criticism suggests the president is not serious about public policy.
Take that old chestnut about corporate jets. The actual issue here is about depreciation — over how many years can a purchaser deduct the cost of a corporate jet?
Do you have to spread out the deduction over seven years? Or can you take it all in five?
No doubt, serious arguments can be made for one view or the other. As they can for the depreciation schedules of hundreds or thousands of products. Lawyers and lobbyists can make a living doing this.
But the bottom line is that the amount of revenue at stake is small, pathetically small next to trillion-dollar federal budget deficits.
Obama keeps talking about corporate jets because it tests well in polls.
And that’s the reason, I think, he keeps talking about universal preschool, not just for disadvantaged children.
Polls show that large majorities of Americans would be willing to have more government money spent for preschool for disadvantaged children. The impulse to help adorable but needy little kids is very strong.
Unfortunately, the evidence that preschool programs do any permanent good for such children is exceedingly weak.
Preschool advocates point to a 1960s program in Ypsilanti, Mich., and a 1970s North Carolina program called Abecedarian. Research showed those programs produced lasting gains in learning.
But no one has been able to replicate the success of these very small programs staffed by unusually dedicated people. Mass programs like Head Start staffed by more ordinary people don’t work as well.
Kids in such programs seem to make no perceptible lasting gains. That’s too bad, because disadvantaged kids need help.
So why is Obama emphasizing universal preschool, which would cost a lot more than preschool for the disadvantaged? The reason, I suspect, is that you would have to hire lots more credentialed teachers, which means you would get lots more teachers union members.
Teachers union leaders would love to see more dues money coming in, and to channel more to the Democratic Party.
To my suspicious eye, the preschool proposal doesn’t make much sense as policy, but it makes a lot of sense as politics.
Demagoguery about preschool and corporate jets is not going to convince Republicans that Obama can be a reliable negotiating partner.
Instead, it reinforces the evidence that he never will be. This is the president who, in his grand bargain negotiations with Speaker John Boehner, agreed on $800 billion in more revenue — and then, in a phone call, told Boehner he wanted $1.2 trillion, instead.
And it’s the president who first proposed the sequester, then promised it would never happen, and then denounced it when it seemed clear it would.
We need serious changes in public policy, as Obama’s Simpson-Bowles Commission recommended. But this president doesn’t seem much interested in that kind of governing.