Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Enigma of Barack Obama

Sometimes I just can't figure Barack Obama out. He's a complete mystery to me. Over the last four years, there have been moments of tremendous exuberance, followed by inexplicable letdowns that were mind-boggling.

By now, it should be painfully obvious that when it comes to the art of negotiation, he leaves a lot to be desired and, let's face it, the man still can't draw a narrative worth a damn.  I could dredge up the debacle over healthcare again, but beating that dead horse is just cruel and inhuman.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those progressives who get all bent out of shape because Santa Claus didn't bring me everything on my Christmas list. Occasionally throwing your base under the bus is a time-honored tradition among presidents, especially those who are successful. Just ask Bill Clinton.

And, unlike Maureen Dowd, I realize this isn't 1964 or even 1984. There has never been a Congress like this in the history of the country. Expecting Obama to work with an opposition party that has made a collective decision to reject everything he stands for is absurd. Consider this: a recent bill by a GOP rep would, if passed, ostensibly prevent the government from collecting economic data needed to determine the unemployment rate. How do you deal with people that far off the reservation?

That's why I wasn't all that upset with Obama over the debt ceiling deal he made in 2011 when the Republicans were threatening not to raise the nation's debt limit if they didn't get what they wanted. In spite of what some progressives said at the time, it was a no brainer for him. The alternative would've meant economic Armageddon. No sane person would've wanted that. Obama did what he had to do, what he always does: live to fight another day.

But the problem for him is realizing he has to eventually fight. And that's where the enigma comes in. One of the components of that infamous debt deal - the sequester - is now front and center and festering like an open wound over a still very fragile economy. It's time to admit the obvious: the Republicans were lying when they said they didn't want the sequester. The truth is that this is a dream come true for them. They came to Washington to slash and burn and that's just what they're doing. The Democrats got snookered. Period.

Unfortunately for the GOP, a funny thing happened on the way to the austerity wood shed. Their constituents found out that they were going to have to wait in incredibly long lines at the airport courtesy of the effects of that very same sequester they all privately love but publicly loathe. Even the base was starting to sound off.

What to do? I know, let's allow the FAA to allocate some funds so that air-traffic controllers wouldn't have to be furloughed. Problem solved. In an amazing feat of bi-partisanship - the likes of which we haven't seen in, let's see, at least four years - both Houses of Congress passed a bill exempting the agency from the arduous effects of the sequester. All it would need is the President's signature and millions of passengers would be able to go their merry way onto their intended destinations without undue delay.

Don't you just love happy endings?

Except this isn't a happy ending. It's a political disaster for the President. Why on Earth would Obama sign a bill exempting one agency - albeit a pretty important one - from the harmful effects of the sequester while still permitting other agencies to wallow in them?  More to the point, why would Obama cede the last bit of leverage he had with respect to the sequester when there was an opening to bring the Republicans to the table and force them to agree to his demands?

It's one thing to blink when someone is holding a gun to your head; it's quite another to acquiesce without duress. Obama could've said to the GOP, "Look, it was stupid of me to agree to sign this sequester into law, just as it was equally irresponsible of you to hold the nation hostage. But guess what, it's here now and the only way out of this mess is for both sides to come together and agree on a substitute plan that accomplishes the same goals without the egregious hardship. What I'm not going to do is give you an easy way out. We made this bed together. Now we have to lie in it."

But that's not what he said. By signing the bill, Obama in essence said that the convenience of passengers at airport terminals was more important than valuable programs like Head Start and Meals on Wheels. Good luck getting the GOP back to the negotiating table now, Mr. President. The last Republican who gave a damn about the down trodden fought a war against the South.

The reality is that the sequester is here to stay. There's no incentive for Republicans to come to the table, much less cave, especially now that the one fly - pardon the pun - in the ointment has been effectively swatted, courtesy of their nemesis's signature.

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has had his fair share of do-over moments. I predict this one will go down as a doozy.

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