The paradox of presidential leadership

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

But you know that every time you do that, you prevent members of the other party from supporting you. Maybe you’ve seen this graph, maybe you haven’t. But you know very well that presidents polarize. That you polarize. If you take a strong position, the other side will immediately take the opposite position. And in the American political system, you need the other side.

This is what I have come to see as the paradox of presidential leadership, and it is on full display with the Gang of Six. When, in the 2012 State of the Union and Budget, the Obama administration failed to fully embrace the Simpson-Bowles framework or release its own alternative proposal, commentators on both sides of the aisle were furious. “He showed up for a tax commission, then he didn’t even kiss the tax commission,” Paul Ryan told Fox News, conveniently unaware that he had served on the tax commission, then voted against the final report. .

White House officials protested that they had signaled in every way they knew they wanted to start bipartisan talks leading to a big deal. “If you look at the history of how these deals are made,” Obama said during a budget press conference, “it’s usually not because there’s an Obama plan out there. ; it’s because both Democrats and Republicans are committed to seriously addressing this issue. But it was taken as a lame escape. If the White House had wanted to fix the problem, it would have come up with a plan or approved someone else’s plan.

So now a bipartisan group of senators has emerged with a big deal and the White House has voiced its support. That’s exactly what everyone in Washington said they should do. And how is it going? Well, here’s what drove Mike Allen’s Playbook this morning:

— Senate Republican executive aide sends emails with ‘Gang of Six’ subject line: ‘Basic advice: The President killed any chance of his success by 1) kissing him. 2) Welcome the fact that he raises taxes. 3) Saying it reflects its own plan.

I see no reason to believe that the Senate Republican leadership aide is wrong. But if Obama hadn’t announced his support for the Gang of Six, this aide would email: . Tell me again how serious the White House is about debt? And all the sages of DC nodded wisely.

Ultimately, the problem for the president is that although the public sees him as the player with the responsibility to get a deal done, there is little he can do to persuade the opposition party to get a deal that he does not want to conclude. In the words of Allen’s Senate aide, going public “kills the deal” because it becomes associated with the president, and the opposition party isn’t supposed to associate with the president. Not going public kills the deal because it creates no pressure on the opposition party to negotiate. But the reality is that nothing here kills a deal. The deal was never live to begin with.

Kevin E. Boling