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Obama's Hands-Off Approach To The Supercommittee

President Obama delivered remarks before signing legislation that will provide business tax credits to help put veterans back to work on Monday.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
President Obama delivered remarks before signing legislation that will provide business tax credits to help put veterans back to work on Monday.

President Obama has kept his distance from the supercommittee. Unlike the budget battles earlier this year, there were no bargaining sessions at the White House and no presidential motorcades to Capitol Hill.

Obama offered a road map for deficit reduction back in September, as the supercommittee was just getting started. And 10 days ago, he called the committee co-chairs from Air Force One to offer encouragement. In between, he's mostly stayed out of the way. He told reporters during his recent Asia-Pacific tour that members of Congress need to bite the bullet and do the responsible thing.

"I've put forward a very detailed approach that would achieve $3 trillion-plus in savings," Obama said. "And it's the sort of balanced approach that the American people prefer."

But Obama's road map faced the same obstacles that have blocked deficit-cutting proposals all year long: Republicans' resistance to tax hikes, and Democrats' unwillingness to cut favored programs without them. Knowing what a bumpy ride was in store, Obama stayed out of the driver's seat.

That's a marked contrast to his intense involvement during cliffhanger budget talks this spring and summer. The difference this time is there was no imminent government shutdown, and no immediate threat of a federal default.

I think it's probably good politics for him to stay out of it at this stage.

"There's no sense of a looming consequence for failure," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

Sure, the stock market tumbled on Monday, as lawmakers lived down to rock-bottom expectations. But the government can still meet its minimum deficit-cutting target through automatic spending cuts. And since those cuts aren't set to take effect for more than a year, there's no immediate fallout for the economy.

Even if Obama tried to play a more active role with the supercommittee, it might have backfired.

"What Democrats and Republicans on the supercommittee have said is that it's not clear that the president's immediate involvement would be that helpful," Garin says. He adds that for Republicans, his presence would be "like a bull reacting to a red cape."

Still, Obama's hands-off approach has drawn criticism from the GOP.

"He's done nothing," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Sunday during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire.

"It's another example of failed leadership," Romney said. "He has not taken personal responsibility."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell went further, suggesting that Obama was actively rooting for the supercommittee to fail.

"You see, if the joint committee succeeds, it steps on the story line that they've been peddling, which is that you can't do anything with the Republicans in Congress," McConnell said.

The White House came to that story line rather late, after Republicans had walked away from multiple efforts to strike a "grand bargain" on the deficit. Obama showed during this summer's debt ceiling debate that he's willing to compromise and bargain directly with Republicans. But results are what matter. And when those talks collapsed, the president paid a price.

"It's not that the public is giving him or anybody else an 'A' for effort," Garin says. "It was really a low point for the whole process."

Since then, the president has been more aggressive about calling out Republicans for their opposition to popular measures to promote jobs and tax the wealthy. And his approval ratings have inched up a bit.

Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, still wants to see some grand bargain on the deficit. But since that's not likely to come from the supercommittee, Bennett says, Obama is wise to keep his distance.

"There's really no value in it for the president in getting his hands dirty as they muck around trying to get a deal," Bennett says. "I think it's probably good politics for him to stay out of it at this stage."

The White House says there's still time to strike a deficit-cutting deal before the automatic spending cuts take effect in 2013. But, adds spokesman Jay Carney, that's Congress' responsibility.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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