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President Obama and the Path Not Taken

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Here's another pop quiz:

Which president had the highest approval rating at their respective midterm elections?
A) Ronald Reagan (1982)
B) Bill Clinton (1994)
C) Barack Obama (2010)

Which President immediately following the midterm election is behaving as if his approval rating was below Harry Truman in his last year in office?
A) Ronald Reagan (1982)
B) Bill Clinton (1994)
C) Barack Obama (2010)

If you answered C on both questions, not only did you pass this week's presidential historical quiz, you also uncovered the central problem with the president's recently proposed deal with Republicans to extend both the middle and upper income tax cuts.

Framing the compromise in win/loss terms oversimplifies the problem. The complexity of governing will invariably produce an end result that is not to everyone's liking -- nor should it be.
For as much as I would like to have seen the president stick to his campaign rhetoric of opposing an extension on the wealthiest Americans receiving a tax cut, I am more concerned that those hit hardest by the country's economic downturn are not summarily dismissed because of their inability to find work.

For all of my philosophical differences with former president Ronald Reagan, part of his legacy, in my opinion, was his commitment to governing trumped his adherence to his conservative ideology.

I am not as critical of the final result of the deal -- that is the nature of politics -- my criticism is the path that the president took, or should I say the path he failed to take.

Between the $50 billion in jobless benefits, $300 billion in middle class tax cuts, $130 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent, $120 billion in reduction of the payroll tax, and $40 billion in earned income tax credit, I understand why the president made the deal.

It represents the difficult choice that confronts the country -- short-term stimulus versus an increase in the deficit. Only time will tell how this deal plays out.

But the path that the president pursued gives him the aura of weakness. He didn't use his bully pulpit to provide the American people with the choices that were at stake and the potential consequences.

Everything he said at his rather defensive press conference should have been stated on the road during the holiday season.

What the president did was akin to one spouse selling the family car because they needed the money without ever bothering to inform the other spouse what was being contemplated.
Millions of people who hired Barack Obama to be their president, who also knew intimately what it would mean to lose their unemployment benefits needed be party to the deal the president was contemplating.

Only the President of the United States has the ability to inform the American people that the only way he could get an extension in unemployment benefits, the middle class tax cuts and a reduction in the payroll tax -- all designed to provide stimulus for working families -- would be to agree to Republican demands that he also agree to extending the George W. Bush era tax cuts to include the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.

Does this mean the deal could have turned out any different? I don't know.

It does mean that the president would not have been forced to stand isolated at the podium during the press conference, along with a few surrogates making the rounds on cable television claiming the Republicans were holding the middle class hostage.

What was at stake was a bipartisan problem. Were only those who voted Democrat in danger of losing their unemployment benefits? At a critical hour the president didn't trust the American people enough to inform them of the choices available in advance.

If it took two weeks to make the aforementioned case to the American people, are we to believe that a deal could not have been done?

Ultimately, political leadership is about perception. And it is never a good sign when the president acts in a way that makes him appear unpresidential.

I believe the president and his team had the American people in mind, but his approach sure had the look and feel of capitulation that was fortified in weakness.

He's got two years to find his mojo or "Yes we can" will be a distant memory compared only to Howard Dean's rebel yell at the Iowa caucus in terms of its impact on changing the nation.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his Web site byronspeaks.com.