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US debt crisis: Is Obama's leadership style suited to the moment?

Despite Obama's use of the bully pulpit in the showdown over the debt limit, he is not a direct party to negotiations. How much has his cautious leadership style contributed to his predicament?

By Staff writer / July 27, 2011

President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the East Room of the White House in Washington, on July 25, on the approaching debt limit deadline.

Jim Watson/AP

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Washington

As the clock ticks down toward a possible default on US debt, President Obama’s leadership style is coming under increasing scrutiny.

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In recent weeks, Mr. Obama has relied heavily on the bully pulpit – press conferences, televised statements, speeches – to push for a bipartisan compromise that would enact major deficit reduction in exchange for an increase in the federal debt ceiling. The Treasury Department says the US risks beginning to default, with calamitous economic results, if no action is taken by Aug. 2.

But no amount of public jawboning by the president is going to move opinion on Capitol Hill, especially among the newly elected House hard-liners from the conservative tea party movement. Even as Obama’s call Monday night for citizens to contact their members of Congress over the crisis led to downed websites and jammed phone lines, a solution looks as distant as ever.

And Obama himself is no longer even a direct party to the negotiations. His White House must rely on its Democratic allies, particularly in the Democratically-controlled Senate, to stay in the loop.

Obama’s predicament is not entirely of his own making. Hyper-partisan gridlock has been years in the making. And the challenges faced by House Speaker John Boehner, who has effectively boxed himself in trying to satisfy his most conservative Republican Party members, have added to Obama’s woes.

But certainly there is a dimension to Obama’s leadership style – a tendency to set a policy framework and then let Congress work out the details – that has contributed to the state of play.

He followed that modus operandi with both the big economic stimulus package early in his term, and then health-care reform, but then Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress. He could safely assume they’d pass legislation he could sign. Now the game is different: He faces a balky Republican majority in Congress.

“He’s clearly a president who accepts the terms of debate and then tries to work from within that,” says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “He’s not a president who tries to shape the agenda, who tries to tell Americans how they should be thinking about problems.”

In effect, Obama allowed House Republicans to refocus American politics onto deficit reduction, and allowed them to tie spending reduction to the debt ceiling without weighing in forcefully with an alternative vision. Last December, he didn’t embrace the recommendations of his own bipartisan deficit reduction commission, and in his State of the Union address in January, he again avoided any serious discussion of how to address the looming deficit crisis.

“A lot of my criticism [of Obama] is based on the idea that dealing with this problem required educating the public and building support for what I think is a centrist solution over time,” says David Schanzer, a professor of public policy at Duke University in North Carolina.

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