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The Case of the Missing President

This anonymously-sourced report from The Hill, which clearly derives in good part from Republican sources, is pretty damning about President Obama’s leadership, if it turns out to be accurate:

GOP aides and lawmakers, speaking on background, portrayed Boehner as the calm negotiator who repeatedly exasperated President Obama.

Boehner last month asked the networks to televise his response to Obama’s address to the nation, a request which infuriated the White House, Republican sources said.

On July 23, they claim, the White House called Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), telling her not to participate on a call with Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Pelosi informed Reid, who declined to participate, and the call was canceled, the Republican sources said. (A Pelosi spokesman could not be reached for comment.)

Later that day, the four leaders met with Obama at the White House. At one point, GOP officials said, the Democratic and Republican leaders asked Obama and his aides to leave the room to let them negotiate.

A tentative deal was subsequently struck, but Obama privately threatened to veto it, the sources said.

Reid has repeatedly denied that he ever signed off on such an agreement.

The following day, staffers for Boehner, Cantor, Reid and McConnell continued to work on an agreement, according to Republicans.

After more twists and turns – and involvement from Vice President Biden – a bipartisan deal was reached a week later.

The article’s worth reading in its entirety for a good deal more color on how Boehner overcame the dissension within his own caucus on passing the second House bill (the first being the Cut, Cap and Balance plan, not counting the vote on the Ryan roadmap). If that’s how it went down, it seems pretty clear that Obama was simply an obstacle to getting a deal done – not the only adult in the room, as he portrayed himself, but the one guy who had nothing to contribute to the process and was actually in the way.

Which brings us to the next point. A big part of why the whole political spin war was so acrimonious throughout these negotiations was the asymmetry in transparency among the participants. The House GOP side of the argument was played out in public: the House passed two plans before the Senate even held a vote on a plan backed by Senate leadership. Everybody knew what the House would do if it controlled the process, and what its negotiating posture was. (The House Democrats, of course, were marginalized, as the House minority always is). The Senate Democrats and Senate GOP leadership each floated plans that were less concrete (until the point late in the game where Reid held a vote on his own alternative), but at least could in some general way be evaluated by the voters and the media.

But throughout the entire process, President Obama never put a plan where the voters could see it. No proposal was circulated by the White House, and the President and his spokesmen refused to go into any specifics beyond a few public statements about small-bore issues like depreciation rates for corporate jets. That posture has its advantages – on an issue of less intense public attention, closed-door back-room dealing can be the way to get rhetoric set aside and the parties moved ahead on reaching their bottom lines. It also gave Obama political advantages, since he could take potshots at the GOP plan while offering no target to be criticized without complete deniability for the White House.

But the downsides manifested themselves in other ways that helped poison the process and ultimately cripple the President. Denied competing plans to pore over, the media coverage ended up focusing on he-said she-said disputes about things that had happened behind closed doors (like Obama’s blowup with Eric Cantor) and competing spin over what Obama had or had not offered. Energized Tea Party activists were given a choice between a no-compromise conservative bill they could see, and a closed-door backroom deal with Obama they couldn’t evaluate beyond their willingness to trust the DC establishment that created this mess in the first place. Even liberal activists were offered very little to work with. Obama ended up sending out mass emails like this one last Friday:

Imagine you got to be a fly on the wall in a closed meeting of the House Republicans yesterday.

Would you hear sober talk of the solemn responsibility our representatives have? Or empathy for those having a tough time in this economy?

No. You’d hear one freshman Republican tell his colleagues to “put on your helmet, buckle your chinstrap, and knock the sh** out of ‘em.”

This group thinks holding our economy captive is a game.

But right now Congress is running out of time to reach a resolution to this debt crisis before Tuesday’s deadline — or put our economy and American jobs at risk. President Obama has called on both sides to compromise and get this thing done — and he’s asked all Americans to contact their representatives and tell them to do their jobs.

“If you want to see a bipartisan compromise — a bill that can pass both houses of Congress and that I can sign — let your members of Congress know,” the President said this morning. “Make a phone call. Send an email. Tweet. Keep the pressure on Washington, and we can get past this.”

So let’s do this. Our records show:

You’re represented in the Senate by [Senator, phone number]
and [Senator, phone number]

In the House of Representatives, you’re represented by [Representative, phone number]

Call them now and say this isn’t about politics — it’s about doing the right thing for the country. Then click here to let us know who you called and how it went, so we can keep track of who we’re reaching.

House Speaker John Boehner, who’s responsible for bringing people in his party to the negotiating table, needs to hear from you, too. You can call his office at (202) 225-0600.

If Congress fails to act, millions of seniors may have to go without the Social Security checks they rely on. Veterans may not be able to get their benefits. We could lose our AAA credit rating.

President Obama has made it clear from the beginning that he will work with Republicans and Democrats to find a balanced, responsible approach to dealing with the nation’s debt.

What’s not clear is whether the fringe ideological faction on the other side refuses to come to the table because they’re genuinely unwilling to give an inch, or just because they think they can benefit politically from appearing that way. Either way, they need to be reminded that Americans know the stakes and want them to compromise and get the job done.

It takes just a few minutes to make a call. If you can’t get through, keep trying. Then help us track our progress by reporting your calls and letting us know how they go:

http://my.barackobama.com/Debt-Deal-Calls

First of all, in all my years receiving direct mail and emails from Republicans, I do not believe I’ve ever gotten anything so abjectly begging for a deal, any deal. Obama was hectoring his supporters to get behind absolutely anything that would pass, without even the slenderest nod to what might be in it (this is how he ended up with a progressive Congressman describing the final result as a “Satan sandwich”). Second, the barrage of Tweets from Obama then targeting each and every state’s delegation made him sound like a 13-year-old girl trying to start a trending topic about Justin Bieber, rather than the Leader of the Free World directing events. Remember when liberals sneered that Sarah Palin was “president of Facebook”? Well, that was Obama last week – President of Twitter. Except as the actual President of the United States, he should have had better ways of influencing Congress than Twitter. Third, Obama’s expectation that the voters and swing-district Congressmen and Senators would rally behind a backroom deal without any public defense of its specifics was a disastrous misreading of the public mood in general and the mood of newly-elected, Tea Party-backed Republicans in particular.

And finally, Obama’s backroom strategy destroyed his leverage. As John Podhoretz noted in the NY Post, Obama’s inability to either work out a deal in private or rally public support behind any particular plan resulted in a deal that left out the one thing he had demanded, any tax hikes. And indeed, whether or not the Hill’s account is accurate, it is telling that Obama insisted that his entire role be performed offstage where the public couldn’t verify what he was doing or where he stood except by taking the word of him and his spokesmen. That amounted to a total surrender of the ‘bully pulpit,’ despite Obama’s frequent appearances to repeat his vague appeals for a “balanced” approach – Republicans could see that he wasn’t willing to take any stand for which he’d be held accountable, and so they inferred, correctly, that he’d never stand ground he’d taken in private if he feared to take it in public. His silence on the specifics rendered him weak and vulnerable, and ultimately impotent. He became the man who’d take any deal, so of course he got none of what he asked for.

That part, no amount of spin about the blow-by-blow of the closed-door negotiatons can conceal.

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