Opinion and Taking Issue

RUSTHOVEN: This buck stops with Obama

October 12, 2013

RusthovenIt’s possible that when this is published, President Obama and House Speaker Boehner will have worked out an end to the government shutdown and debt ceiling crises. I’m betting no. For now, the president doesn’t want to, because he thinks it’s hurting the GOP.

For now, he’s right. On the shutdown, polls show people blame Republicans more than the president. And give credit where it’s due. Some Republicans have worked hard for that blame, and by golly, they’ve earned it.

Principal credit goes to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and those House Republicans who insisted on linking funding the government with defunding Obamacare. This was a nonstarter with the president and most citizens—most of whom dislike Obamacare, but also don’t think stopping it now is worth shutting down the government. Cruz and his House cohorts are tone deaf to this.

But Obama is tone deaf to something more important: what Americans expect from the nation’s leader. Whatever the short-term political calculus, his current rhetoric and refusal even to talk with GOP leaders about solutions diminish his stature, his presidency, and his ability to lead.

Start with the rhetoric. The president calls GOP opponents terrorists, guilty of “hostage-taking” and “extortion.” Top aides, such as senior strategy and communications advisor Dan Pfeiffer, go on CNN to call Republicans “arsonists,” “kidnappers” and “suicide bombers.”

Think this brings us closer to a solution? Did you ever hear anything like this from Reagan, Clinton or either Bush, or senior aides such as chiefs of staff Jim Baker (Reagan) or Leon Panetta (Clinton)?

Then there’s Obama’s refusal even to talk with Republican leaders unless they first fund the government and raise the debt ceiling unconditionally—which is to say, give him everything he would want in a negotiation. In his telling, no president has ever had to negotiate on important budgetary or policy matters with a “gun to the head of the American people” (note the rhetoric again) on funding the government, and he’s not about to start.

This narrative is untrue. There have been some 17 shutdowns since 1980. Each involved serious policy and/or budget disputes. Each was resolved by presidents negotiating with Congress (which has the power of the purse), with give and take on both sides. That’s how things work in a constitutional system built on separation of powers.

This is particularly so when neither party controls both political branches, yielding the “divided government” many Americans say they prefer (at least when talking to pollsters). That’s why President Reagan was in constant contact with House Speaker O’Neill, even absent any impending crisis. President Obama, by contrast, calls Speaker Boehner to repeat that he won’t negotiate.

Nice touch—like calling the girl you didn’t ask to the prom to remind her she’s not your date.

Refusing to engage with Congress is unprecedented, and an abdication of presidential leadership. If, as the president says, it’s vital to raise the debt ceiling, then it’s vital for him to work with Congress on an agreement to do so.

He should also remember that concern about our debt is legitimate. To quote one senator: “Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”

That’s Barack Obama, speaking in 2006.•

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Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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