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The Do-Nothing President

The Republicans’ surprising new critique of Obama.

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By TOD LINDBERG
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On the other hand, a failure to take spending cuts seriously would provoke an intraparty backlash of epic proportions, with the Tea Party faction prepared to vote en masse against a quavering GOP leadership. And for all the grief Republicans took in 1995-96, including the political rehabilitation of Bill Clinton, they actually did end up with a budget heading toward balance (thanks not so much to their own parsimony as to an economy generating tax receipts much higher than projected). And they held on to their majorities, too. If some Democrats have consoled themselves with the thought that Obamacare was worth sacrificing their House majority for, some new GOP members certainly believe losing their seats would not be too high a price to pay for entitlement reform. 

And GOP leaders may not be wrong. Their arguments about the unsustainability of current policy and the need to save Social Security and Medicare for future generations may stand a chance against the certain Democratic onslaught. Some of us were hoping the trillions we’ve been blowing through would have been available to ease the baby boomer retirement bulge. In the words of the great punk ska band Sublime, “Got to find a reason, a reason things went wrong. Got to find a reason why my money’s all gone.”

So bring on the confrontation. But the emerging GOP strategy seems to have a more subtle element as well. It’s not necessarily that Republicans expect to persuade Obama to take meaningful action. It’s how they plan to portray their failure.

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, who is in general a lot more sympathetic to Obama than to congressional Republicans, had a column last week asking the “Where’s Waldo?” question of Obama and his administration’s nonplan to deal with the deficit (among other instances of invisibility). She did not miss the irony of a developing GOP line of attack on Obama rather at odds with Republicans’ characterization of him as the ambitious ultraliberal nationalizer of health care. 

No, the GOP lamentation is now Obama’s inaction. As Paul Ryan told ABC News in mid-February in response to the Obama budget, “I was actually hoping for some sincere presidential leadership” on bringing down the deficit. “He is not leading.”

Rising GOP Senate star Marco Rubio of Florida has lately been taking the next rhetorical step. It’s essential to act now on entitlements, he told a Washington audience, while reforms can still be put in place without harming those who now depend on the programs or are about to. Rubio also expressed his doubts about the ability of Congress alone to solve the problems: “Entitlement reform requires presidential leadership.”

Maybe that’s a plea for Obama to get involved in the issue. Maybe it’s also an interesting preview of the line of attack Republicans want to adopt if he doesn’t: Barack Obama, Do-Nothing President.

Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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