Twitterer-in-chief … or can the president rise to a greater role in the greater crisis?

In the eyes of one former Democratic official with roots that stretch back to the Carter era with whom I spoke this morning, President Obama may have just had his cardigan sweater moment. It came during the televised statement he made today at 10:30 a.m. The public comment was clearly arranged in order to counter criticisms ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

In the eyes of one former Democratic official with roots that stretch back to the Carter era with whom I spoke this morning, President Obama may have just had his cardigan sweater moment. It came during the televised statement he made today at 10:30 a.m. The public comment was clearly arranged in order to counter criticisms that the president has been marginalized during this debt-ceiling tug-of-war. Unfortunately, from a White House perspective, and based on reactions I heard, mostly from Dems in the hours afterward, the intervention may have had an effect that was the opposite of what was intended.

Rather than making a strong stand for a particular point of view or committing himself to an active role at the center of negotiations, Obama instead used his time on the air to call for "leadership" from those on the Hill and to renew his request that the American people put pressure on the Congress to reach a realistic solution to the debt standoff.

When the most powerful man in the world feels the best he can do is to call for the people who elected him to call their representatives in Congress he sends a message that the Hill is where the power resides. When he calls for America to tweet their demands for change, he relegates himself to the role of Twitterer-in-Chief, a cheerleader for the era of social networks.

In the eyes of one former Democratic official with roots that stretch back to the Carter era with whom I spoke this morning, President Obama may have just had his cardigan sweater moment. It came during the televised statement he made today at 10:30 a.m. The public comment was clearly arranged in order to counter criticisms that the president has been marginalized during this debt-ceiling tug-of-war. Unfortunately, from a White House perspective, and based on reactions I heard, mostly from Dems in the hours afterward, the intervention may have had an effect that was the opposite of what was intended.

Rather than making a strong stand for a particular point of view or committing himself to an active role at the center of negotiations, Obama instead used his time on the air to call for "leadership" from those on the Hill and to renew his request that the American people put pressure on the Congress to reach a realistic solution to the debt standoff.

When the most powerful man in the world feels the best he can do is to call for the people who elected him to call their representatives in Congress he sends a message that the Hill is where the power resides. When he calls for America to tweet their demands for change, he relegates himself to the role of Twitterer-in-Chief, a cheerleader for the era of social networks.

That’s not what he was elected to do and he is clearly capable of much better. At the moment he seems unsure, whipsawed by events, by turns reasonable and then reactive. He may be the smartest guy in the room in any deliberation on these events, he may even be the best intentioned, most-principled and best-liked by the American people, but he has at key moments during the past few weeks evoked the Junior Senator from Illinois more than the man whose desk is the place where the buck stops.

No matter what the outcome of this weekend’s budget negotiations and votes and histrionics, we know a couple things. One is that we will need some time to evaluate what they really mean. As I have noted before, in December the president’s acceptance of the Bush tax cuts was hailed as a masterstroke, now it appears a big error both economically, and because it gave him greater ownership of the deficit and sent a message that he would bend over too far to compromise, a political misstep.

The handling of this particular debt-ceiling problem may take even longer to evaluate. That’s because time will almost certainly underscore the degree to which it does not stand alone but that it is part of a slow-developing and profound crisis of many years duration. It began with over a decade in which median incomes fell and no net jobs were created while public and private borrowing skyrocketed. It continued through the financial crises of 2007 and 2008 and into the eurozone crisis, the Japan debt crisis, and the U.S. debt crisis. And the current mood in Washington guarantees it will continue for years to come.

Look at the anemic growth rates just announced for the first half of this year. Look a the grim unemployment numbers. Consider the likely downgrade of U.S. credit. Look at the horrific, unconscionable wealth-gap that has emerged between the top and the bottom in our society, the 20-1 difference in household wealth between white and black families revealed in Pew data out this week. Then add to that a Congress that — in a development even more important than this debt ceiling impasse — is effectively saying no to new major spending in the year ahead, no to new revenue creation. That means the government is unilaterally disarming itself in terms of its ability to aid its people in a situation that could deteriorate so far as to trigger social unrest unprecedented in this country since the 1960s.

In other words, the events of late 2011 and 2012 are likely to be of far greater consequence in the context of this slow-moving economic mega-crisis that is afflicting America and the world. And, as a result, the president’s errors of tactics and tone during this crisis might — if he recognizes the need for a more engaged, sleeves-rolled-up, tougher, more decisive leader going forward — fade from memory. If he combines his welcome intelligence, reasonableness and constructive impulses with strength and an abandonment of the rope-a-dope, lead from behind approaches that have bedeviled the administration from the stimulus to the health care debate, from the Libya crisis to the debt ceiling standoff, then he may rebound and shrug off the temptations to make further Jimmy Carter comparisons.

His legacy and his prospects for re-election depend on how he learns from this difficult episode and those others like it during the first two and half years of his time in office. Personally, I believe he can and will grow as the job requires, virtually all presidents do and he has already shown great growth in other areas in his time in office … but I have found this episode a bit of a roller-coaster ride, from the highs of him appearing to be the only adult in the room to the lows of him appearing to assign himself a role on the sidelines.

 

**Correction: In my piece earlier this week on Secretary Clinton’s very successful trip to Asia, my article appeared to indicate that the trip included a stop in Pakistan. That was an error. Worse, I was under no impression that she did stop in Pakistan on this trip but had intended to raise an earlier Pakistan visit alongside the India trip of this most recent mission to make a point about the careful balance being struck. So I dropped a line about it into a paragraph and then did not go back and add the contextual language I meant to add. It was a screw-up for which I am personally responsible. I particularly regret it because I would hate for it to detract from the core point, which is the first-rate job that the Obama administration, especially Secretary Clinton and her team, have been doing establishing and executing a new, smart and effective strategy for the United States in Asia.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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