“When one begins with an initial error,” Aristotle wrote The Politics, “it is inevitable that one should end badly.”
In the current debt ceiling debate, the White House began with several initial errors.
The first is the belief the public’s appetite for listening to President Obama is insatiable, that the more he talks, the more the public is persuaded by him and enamored of him. In fact the public, as well as Congress, is rapidly tuning out the president. On Friday evening I was having dinner at a restaurant which includes a bar. The president’s press conference was being broadcast live – and no one in the restaurant was paying a bit of attention to what he had to say. I’m confident that same thing occurred during last night’s prime time address, which was both pointless and counterproductive.
The president and his team believe he possesses unparalleled communication skills. Actually, Obama’s ability to rally the public to his side and on behalf of his causes is strikingly weak.
A second initial error by the White House is that inserting Obama into this debt ceiling fight would work to his advantage, making him look like the “only adult in the room” (to use a tiresome phase the White House has latched on to). Instead, the president has come across as pouting, peevish, and petulant. Parents of teenagers will immediately identify with what I’m referring to.
A third initial error by the president is that he would emerge from this debate with his leadership bone fides strengthened and his reputation as a first-rate negotiator enhanced.
The opposite has happened. Obama’s negotiating skills are among the worst of any president in our lifetime. He makes a handshake agreement with the Speaker of the House to increase revenues by $800 billion, only to be criticized by congressional Democrats for going back on his word, causing the president to go back to the Speaker the next day to increase revenues by half. No one can trust the president’s words or commitments. As a result the president is now sidelined and increasingly irrelevant, having gone from “emperor to bystander,” in the words of Charles Krauthammer.
A fourth initial error of the White House is that this debate would transform Obama’s image as a profligate spender into a born-again budget cutter, a man whose approach embodies “balance.” What has happened instead is that this debate has concentrated the public mind on our fiscal crisis even beyond what it was and, it’s worth pointing out, knocked the Democratic attack machine entirely off its game. The assault on the Ryan budget and Medicare reform has ground to a halt. All the attention is on this messy, frustrating process, to which Obama is now tethered.
Aristotle was right – and in this instance, given his initial errors, it seems inevitable that things should end badly for Obama. But why should this episode be any different from the rest of his presidency?