President Obama’s July 25 address to the nation on the debt crisis was a major political blunder. Without a precise proposal of his own to forward and with only a list of complaints about Republican impediments to his goal of raising taxes on the wealthiest while maintaining unaffordable entitlement programs that vastly outstrip the modest spending reductions he favors, he appeared just another voice in a congressional slug fest, very non-presidential, rather pedestrian. There is a great aura and power to the presidency that some, like Ronald Reagan, captured naturally. The bully pulpit the President has available to him is considerable, yet a failure to appreciate the importance of exercising decisive power has brought defeat to many of both parties, from Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter. President Obama missed this opportunity, like he has so many times before, to inspire Americans to believe him firmly in command, a man capable of decisive leadership. We should be grateful for that because the course he charts for America is one that leads inevitably to massive government expansion, planned economies, and economic ruin.
The Republican retort, given by House Speaker Boehner, scolded the President, showing none of the once common deference for that office. It reinforced the image of President Obama as yet another contender in Congress’s budget battle rather than as an independent, true leader. The President’s attempt to build consensus behind his desired “balanced” approach (which is anything but balanced because it favors tax increases and maintenance of enormous federal debt) failed miserably. He miscalculated. He apparently thought he could persuade Americans by simply criticizing his opposition, not offering a true solution to an overwhelming problem. He appeared to wash his hands of the affair (taking no responsibility for his own spending bills that contributed mightily to the financial crisis).
I suspect the July 25 address will come back to haunt the President. It reduces his image to an even greater extent in the estimation of the American public. Americans expect their Presidents to lead in the darkest hours, not appear defeated and full of bile and complaints. They expect solutions to be offered, not excuses. They rightfully reject those who blame the American people for the hardships imposed by government. That lesson former President James Earl Carter learned to his great chagrin as the American people exchanged his pessimism and indecision for Reagan’s optimism and decisive leadership. President Carter blamed the American people for a sense of “malaise” which he said contributed to the double whammy of high unemployment and high inflation. That move contributed to his defeat. Unlike President Reagan, President Obama is a reactionary, not a true leader. He does not lead in this budget crisis, he responds. He came to the American people, not at the outset with a clear solution but at the end when even were there a clear solution it would not stem the fall-out that will come from the downgrading of America’s credit rating, the consequent increase in mortgage interest rates, increase in commercial loan rates, and further retardation of economic recovery.
Likewise, President Obama’s extended negotiation sessions with members of Congress at the White House, refusal to propose a clear plan to eliminate the national debt without raising taxes in a recession, and attempt to blame others for the very excesses of government to which he has contributed bespeak failure, gloom, and uncertainty. Americans expect their Presidents to lead with a clear vision and an irrepressible sense of optimism. They also expect their Presidents to be apparently above partisan bickering, even if they behind the scenes involve themselves deeply in the congressional battle.
It was a mistake for Obama to invite his adversaries to join him in the White House for negotiations. That approach inevitably leads to an “us versus them” perception, to a view that one party or the other will come out of this a winner. There is no face saving option in such close quarters and dramatic interactions among steadfast opponents. Instead of this approach which could only work if the Republicans completely capitulated, Obama had to rise to the occasion and offer a detailed solution of his own. He had to lead, and yet he must have thought that by leading he would make himself a clear target. Precisely right, but America expects its Presidents to be courageous in a crisis, to lead even at the expense of re-election. He chose to react to plans brought to him and maintain a degree of plausible deniability: Well, the plan I sign into law today is not the plan I wanted but is the best we could get from Congress in the time available. That refusal to lead will come back to haunt him, whether he wins re-election or not. His track record is one of defeat, reaction, excuse, and complaint.
Obama’s July 25 speech sounded more like a eulogy for America than a rallying cry to restore American prosperity. It is a speech that should be exploited by his opposition because it truly establishes that in the most important contest of his administration and the most dire crisis in American economic history he could not lead. From the vantage point of liberals, he must be viewed as an insufferable sell-out. From the vantage point of conservatives, he epitomizes a person so wedded to government as an end all, be all, that he has no currency with them. From the vantage point of the typical American who has a generally conservative predisposition, he appears weak, vacillating, indecisive, and ultimately to blame for not acting responsibly to cure rather than contribute to the government’s financial ills and the nation’s poor economy.
No President is great who does not rise to greatness in the midst of a crisis. No President is respected whose agenda depends more on complaints than on solutions. No President is capable of uniting and inspiring the American people who lacks a clear vision that hearkens back to those principles that made the nation prosperous and free. No President is deserving of the trust of the American people who places more faith in government than in the people. These weaknesses in Obama offer a very definite chance to defeat him, if only his opposition is intelligent enough to realize the weaknesses and exploit them.
Although it is too early to know who will face Obama in the general election, we can now describe the characteristics that candidate must have to beat the President. Victory depends on clear contrasts. In contrast to Obama’s defeatist viewpoint that we must accept as inevitable a long recession with high unemployment, his opponent must unequivocally reject that view and adopt instead an optimistic vision that if we liberate American people and business from an oppressive and costly federal government, we can fully expect an end to the recession and a restoration of full employment.
In contrast to Obama’s defeatist viewpoint that the budget must remain unbalanced in order to afford entitlement programs that are, in truth, unaffordable, his opponent must demand passage of a balanced budget amendment, explain that spending beyond our means into the indefinite future is irresponsible and unsustainable, and clearly articulate innovative means to reduce public dependency on entitlements, increase individual retention of earnings through a program of ending the individual income tax, and eliminate government departments and agencies wherever possible.
In contrast to Obama’s defeatist viewpoint that the private sector is incapable of sustaining economic growth unless directed by the government through multi-trillion dollar bail-out, stimulus, and economic programs, his opponent must reveal that private solutions, not government planning, built the American economy into the greatest in the world, regulation has brought it down, and liberation from regulation can restore the economy to the heights of freedom and prosperity. In short, while Obama portrays the nation as inevitably bound to a massive federal government that costs so much that it necessarily brings everything down, his opponent must reveal that view to buy into failure, must reject it, and must explain instead that there is a simple, well-established recipe for American success: If we let Americans retain their own income and have the freedom to build their own businesses, they will inevitably restore the nation to prosperity.