With President Obama, there’s always a catch. In the 2014 budget he announced last week, Obama proposed a more accurate way of calculating the inflation rate for annual cost-of-living increases in Social Security. It’s a technical change in pursuit of honesty and good government. And if adopted, it would cause benefits to grow more slowly, though almost imperceptibly so. Republican leaders in Congress ought to be delighted since they had “championed”—Obama’s word—the idea in the first place.
Then came the catch. The president’s price for adopting this gentle reform was hundreds of billions in new tax increases. It was a price Republicans were certain to reject, as Obama surely knew. Rather than grounds for a bipartisan bargain, his “compromise” was a political contrivance to put Republicans at a disadvantage.
It may work. Now Obama will accuse Republicans of not being serious about deficit reduction. Now he will blame them for obstructing a deal on spending and taxes. Now he will claim their motive was solely to shield the wealthy. We’ve heard all this before—and it’s worked before.
But there’s something else involved as well. Under Obama, the presidency has been in decline. His use of the budget as a ploy against Republicans is an example of this. The biggest domestic issue is the looming fiscal crisis, but Obama has addressed it only rhetorically. Instead he’s used the budget largely as a political tool that cheapened the presidency.
Other presidents have done this, but far less crassly or brazenly. At least they presented their budgets on time, as required by law. Obama was two months late. He erased one of Washington’s oldest adages: The president proposes, Congress disposes. By last week, both the Senate and House had already passed budget resolutions.
Obama’s tardiness touches on another aspect of presidential decline: the loss of influence. By long tradition, any release of the budget produced by the White House was a major event. True, the impact of the president’s budget has waned in recent years. Obama has made it an afterthought.
On Capitol Hill today, Obama has scarcely any clout at all. One reason: He acts as if spending time with members of Congress, even Democrats, is an unpleasant chore. Another reason: Having deferred to Democrats in his first term, he finds it difficult to pull rank on them in his second. And having ignored or alienated Republicans, he isn’t likely to achieve much by courting them over dinner in recent weeks.
Immigration and gun control are the dominant issues in Congress at the moment, and Obama is a major player on neither of them. The “gang of eight”—four Democrats, four Republicans—is the driving force on immigration in the Senate. Obama is no force at all.
Their bill, which was being finalized last week, would require near-total border security to be certified before immigrants here illegally are granted legal status and the right to seek citizenship. Obama’s version has never been released publicly, but was leaked in mid-February. It would give illegals an immediate path to citizenship. The gang of eight rejected that idea.
After the Newtown massacre in December, Obama proposed a ban on many “assault” weapons and other restrictions. That got no traction in Congress. Now the expansion of background checks on gun purchasers is the last hope of gun control advocates.
Obama promised to play a huge role in the gun control debate, but the issue has left him behind. He gave speeches in Denver and Hartford, Connecticut, to stir support. He flew parents of Newtown victims to Washington last week to lobby for gun control legislation. The result: no discernible impact.
The bully pulpit has served Obama poorly, as it has every president since Reagan. Obama, however, was expected to be more eloquent than his predecessors, thus able to generate enthusiasm for his initiatives. If anything, he’s generating indifference. His speeches on health care failed to stop Obamacare from losing popularity. His speeches on gun control failed similarly.
It drew minimal attention in March when Senate majority whip Dick Durbin of Illinois characterized the gang of eight as a model for progress on issues besides immigration. “We’re trying to establish a new standard in the Senate, a bipartisan dialogue that may result in a solution,” he said.
“I think that people who have given up on Congress would be encouraged to know that there’s a real positive dialogue—a bipartisan dialogue—and perhaps—just perhaps—we can set the stage for a more positive dialogue when it comes to the budget,” Durbin told Bob Schieffer on CBS’s Face the Nation.
This doesn’t leave much room for Obama’s involvement, at least in the Senate. On gun control, a gang of two senators—Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania—has put together the measure to expand background checks.
The decline of the presidency isn’t Obama’s fault alone. The media once treated Washington as a White House-centric town. They did so during the entirety of Obama’s first term. Obama was an obsession. Congress was unexciting and got far less coverage.
But the press can be fickle, and its interest in Obama has dwindled. Now the media buzz in Washington is about who’s going to run for president in 2016 and who’s going to win.
After Republicans captured Congress in 1994, President Clinton was asked if he was still relevant. He was. Presidents can always play defense, thanks to the veto, and focus on foreign policy, where they have considerable discretion. Obama is relevant. He’s just not the president he once was.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.