Commentary Magazine


Is the President Still Relevant Here?

After Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they continued to dominate debate and marginalize President Bill Clinton. That led to one of Clinton’s most memorable moments, when he declared at a 1995 press conference: “The president is still relevant here.” It was a low moment for Clinton, but he would have the last laugh—he’d recover his voice and easily win re-election. Looking back on that moment, George Stephanopoulos explained Clinton’s ill-advised remark by noting it was a “Perfect example of the stage direction coming out of the actor’s mouth, as opposed to the script.”

One wonders what kind of stage direction President Obama is currently receiving from his advisors, but it’s not unthinkable that someone has to remind him he’s relevant (but not to say so). Aside from the defense establishment, the president’s threats about the sequester’s budget cuts are receiving a collective yawn from the public. Polls show the public doesn’t know much about it, nor care to. Republicans have seemingly accepted the inevitability of the cuts, and some are even cheering them. The president’s bizarre behavior, in which he threatens to make the budget cuts hurt as much as possible and go after reporters who don’t regurgitate the White House’s ridiculous spin, is not moving the needle. And now, Ben White reports, when confronted with the sequester’s supposed impact, the business community is practically laughing in the president’s face:

The administration has not been able to tap into the heavy pressure that comes from deep-pocketed and well-connected groups like the Chamber, the Business Roundtable, the Financial Services Forum and many others putting out statements and sending breathless letters to the Hill demanding immediate action, as they did during the cliff fight….

Corporate groups are also taking cues from financial markets, which largely have ignored threats about the sequester’s potential impact. Stocks sold off early this week, but that had much more to do with worries over the muddled outcome of elections in Italy and their possible impact on the European debt crisis than Washington and the sequester, analysts said.

“Investors have been hearing a lot of hysteria out of the politicians for the last two years over all the different end-of-the-world deadlines,” said Michael Obuchowski, portfolio manager at North Shore Asset Management. “We are human beings with vertebrate nervous systems, and there is a desensitizing effect when you hear it so many times. You eventually ignore it.”

That suggests the president has a serious credibility problem on spending and crisis management. White also quotes Michael Bloomberg’s response to the sequester threats: “come on, let’s get serious here.” White adds that the Chamber of Commerce has made it clear that, in their opinion, the Democrats’ plan to replace the sequester with tax increases “would be worse than even the sequester.”

That sums up much of the attitude, even on the Republican side, to the sequester: Obama’s own ideas about the debt and deficit are actually worse for the country than the sequester–which was also his idea–so they’ll take the lesser of two evils. In their opinion, the president goes from one bad idea to the next, and they’d like him to maybe stop talking for a while. The Washington Post carries a story today on the sequester rhetoric, and finds that experts in the relevant fields cannot confirm the White House’s dire warnings. Everyone seems pretty skeptical of the president’s rhetoric, in part, the Post reports, because the sequester’s structure is so unique:

What is not new, however, is the impulse of officials to resort to melodrama when they are faced with budget cuts. Getting people’s attention has been a challenge in the case of the sequester. In the latest Washington Post-Pew Research Center survey, only one in four said they were closely following news about the automatic spending cuts.

The ploy even has a name: the “Washington Monument” syndrome, a reference to the National Park Service’s decision to close that landmark and the Grand Canyon for two days a week after the Nixon administration cut funding in 1969.

They’ve seen this play before, and they believe life goes on. As Jonathan mentioned, the press’s reaction to this debate has been to push back a bit on the White House, first with regard to Bob Woodward and now with the Post accusing the president, and those who echo his pronouncements, of “melodrama.” And it also marks a shift on the Republican side. The GOP has often fallen into the president’s PR traps and allowed him to effectively divide their ranks, then step back and watch them point fingers at each other. There was even (overblown) talk of a mutiny against Speaker John Boehner when the new Congress took office.

But this time, the Republicans are putting up a much more unified front, and calling the president’s bluff. It’s a shift Obama ignores at his own peril. Clinton, after all, was still relevant–he was running for re-election. Obama has already put that victory behind him–and, it seems, may have squandered the momentum and political capital that came with it.

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