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Follower in Chief

Lead? President Obama would prefer not to.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By FRED BARNES
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We’ve had strong presidents and weak presidents, skillful presidents and incompetent presidents, mediocre presidents and just plain poor presidents. Barack Obama stands alone as the first president who simply declines to lead.

Obama

Who’s in charge? The president with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in 2009.

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On almost every major issue since he took office in January 2009, Obama has dumped responsibility on someone else, merely paid lip service, or let the issue quietly fade away. Just this year, the issues that have gotten the no-leadership treatment from Obama include: the deficit, the debt, Medicare, Social Security, Medi-caid, energy, corporate taxes, medical liability, immigration, and Libya.

The president set his pattern of negligible leadership early on in his administration. Rather than draft his own proposals on economic stimulus, health care, cap and trade, and Wall Street reform—his top priorities—he delegated the job to Democrats in Congress.

Even Jimmy Carter, one of our weakest presidents, didn’t do this. And strong presidents, like Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, never considered deferring to Congress in that way. They followed the traditional practice of drafting specific legislation—two major tax bills and a military buildup in Reagan’s case, civil rights and Medicare in LBJ’s—and pressing Congress to ratify their recommendations.

Why is Obama so leadership averse? For one thing, it gives him flexibility since he’s not tied irrevocably to what congressional Democrats come up with. And it limits his accountability. He’s free to attack Republican proposals without attaching himself to an alternative that Republicans could attack.

Obama is comfortable talking about a range of issues. But more often than not he adopts a vague or equivocal position (or no position at all) and fails to lean on Congress to take action. Obama has frequently advocated a cut in the corporate tax rate this year, for example, then done nothing to achieve it.

The one specific proposal by Obama this year was a federal budget for 2012, submitted to Congress in February. But after it was widely criticized for failing to tackle the critical spending and debt problem, Obama jettisoned it. He replaced it, in effect, with a nebulous plan lacking in specifics such as a spending baseline or 10-year time frame. At the same time, he denounced the scrupulously specific Republican budget passed by the House for “changing the basic social compact in America.”

The normal procedure in the Senate, once the House has approved a budget, is to pass one of its own, followed by a Senate-House conference to iron out the differences. However, Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused (for the second straight year) to pass a budget, prompting Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to note that “we had [two] competing versions” of a budget in the Senate, both offered by Republicans. Democrats voted down both. 

On Medicare, the program’s trustees have projected that the program will run out of money in 2024. The Congressional Budget Office puts the date at 2020. Responding to this, the House budget would replace traditional Medicare with “premium support” for seniors to purchase health insurance.

Neither Obama nor Senate Democrats have proposed an alternative for saving Medicare, though Democratic senator Chuck Schumer of New York said it must stay in its “current form with no cuts to seniors’ benefits.” This is the path to bankruptcy.

In the current bipartisan negotiations on raising the debt limit by $2 trillion, it’s unlikely the White House and Democrats will agree to any serious Medicare reforms. On the contrary, they’re eager to exploit the Republican plan as a campaign issue in the 2012 election. The closed-door negotiations, by the way, are appropriate for a nonleader, allowing Obama’s minions to argue for specific policies without ever advocating them publicly.

At fundraising events, Obama insists he’s ready to take on Medicare and Social Security. “Yes, we’ve got to make changes so that Medicare and Social Security are there for future generations,” he said at a Democratic National Committee event in Miami last week. Yet the White House has privately told Republicans not to bring up Social Security in the current talks.

A bolder and quite public tack was taken by President George W. Bush in 2005. He spent the year talking up the broad outlines of a plan to insure the long-term solvency of Social Security, without success.

In late 1997, President Bill Clinton agreed, in private, to a compromise with House speaker Newt Gingrich on modifying Social Security. At the last minute, Clinton backed away when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.

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