President Obama has distanced himself from the congressional supercommittee — politically and geographically — in a strategy aimed at avoiding political risk rather than putting his leadership on the line for a long-shot deal, analysts say.
“Politically, staying out of the supercommittee dynamic was much better for him than jumping into it,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Washington’s going to take a hit” for the committee’s failure to reach an agreement.
Ever since the 12 supercommittee members were appointed this summer, observers gave the panel a low chance of succeeding in its goal of finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions over the next 10 years. Mr. Obama engaged in testy and ultimately fruitless talks with House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, during the spring and summer’s debt-ceiling dispute and thus had a close view of the entrenched positions of Democrats and Republicans.
As the supercommittee’s Nov. 23 deadline approached, Mr. Obama showed little of the personal engagement that he displayed during the summer to bring both sides together toward a deal. As the panel’s talks reached a critical stage, the president left the country for a long-planned, nine-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region, several time zones away from the roiling partisanship in Washington.
“I think [White House officials] were predicting that the likelihood of success was very low,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a moderate think tank in Washington. “I think the president was smart to stay out of it, substantively and politically.”
Nevertheless, Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates accused Mr. Obama of failed leadership. Keith Hennessy, who was an economic adviser to President George W. Bush, criticized Mr. Obama for devoting more effort toward Europe’s debt crisis than America’s fiscal woes.
“The president’s press secretary tells us that the President and his Treasury Secretary have ‘been very engaged with their European counterparts’ in addressing their debt crises, but it appears the President’s involvement in the American Super Committee was to set a proposal on the table and then leave,” Mr. Hennessy said in a blog post.
Presidential spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that Mr. Obama “had a responsibility as a leader in this process” to do three things: make clear to everyone his vision for deficit reduction, rally public support for it and persuade Democrats to accept “tough choices.”
He said the president did all those things, while Republicans refused to accept tax increases for the nation’s top earners.
“The fundamental reason that the supercommittee failed was because Republicans refused to ask the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more,” Mr. Carney said.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, an independent, said the president should have done “more than submit a plan to a committee — and then step aside and hope the committee members take action.”
Whether voters will adopt Mr. Bloomberg’s view remains to be seen. A Quinnipiac University survey released Nov. 21 showed that 44 percent of voters blamed Republicans for the supercommittee’s failure while 38 percent blamed Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats.
But some polls suggest that the president’s “hands off” strategy with the supercommittee didn’t play well among voters.
A George Washington University/Politico Battleground poll released last week showed that 38 percent of people approve of Mr. Obama’s ability to deal with Congress, down from 49 percent in May. The number of people who disapprove of the president’s dealings with Congress rose from 44 percent to 58 percent.
Another poll showed that the number of people who say Mr. Obama is a “strong leader” declined from more than 60 percent earlier this year to 54 percent last month.
Mr. Bennett said Mr. Obama’s personal involvement with the supercommittee would have served only to “harden positions, particularly on the Republican side.” He said voters aren’t likely to fault Mr. Obama for not diving into a “very large bucket of muck.”
“When Congress is at 9 percent [job approval], nobody’s going to say Obama should do a lot more with Congress,” Mr. Bennett said.
With the supercommittee’s work a failure, Mr. Obama is heading back to battleground states such as New Hampshire and Pennsylvania to lobby for congressional action on parts of his $447 billion jobs bill. That likely will produce more disagreements and gridlock with Republicans in Congress.
“What Americans are going to see in December is a replay of what we’ve seen several times,” Mr. Ornstein said.
He said Republican lawmakers could be in an uncomfortable spot next year, with the Bush tax cuts about to expire and Mr. Obama threatening to veto any efforts to reconfigure mandatory spending cuts.
“Next year, in policy terms, Obama holds most of the cards,” Mr. Ornstein said.