President Barack Obama has become something of an invisible man since he appeared on prime-time TV Monday night and urged people to call Congress to back him on solving the national debt crisis. His absence from public view since then has left him “in danger of seeming a spectator at one of the most critical moments of his presidency,” as The New York Times
Politico seems to be running its own paparazzi watch on Obama, with this entry: “For the third day in a row, President Obama has no public appearances scheduled as the deficit debate wears on. The only items on his Thursday schedule released to reporters are his daily briefing with advisers and separate meetings with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”
The Times noted White House press secretary Jay Carney’s frustration boiled over Wednesday as reporters grilled him about what the president is doing to break the debt gridlock. Carney told of private talks and continuous meetings — and then asked reporters whether they were demanding a “a President Bartlet moment” — say, a march up Capitol Hill to whip Congress in line, à la fictional president in ‘The West Wing’ television series. “
A reporter retorted: “Yes.”
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Acknowledging that reality is not as predictable, or as easy to accomplish, as a TV sitcom and that much of the budget debate is in the halls of Congress, the Times nonetheless observed that this is an odd time for the president to disappear into the shadows.
Rather, the Times reported, “Mr. Obama’s challenge now is to reassert himself in a way that produces the next-best outcome, or at least one that does no harm to his re-election hopes.”
The Times acknowledges the behind-the-scenes and face-to-face efforts of Vice President Joe Biden, White House Chief of Staff William Daley, Obama budget director Jacob Lew, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
“No measure can pass without the president’s signature, so Mr. Obama is far from irrelevant,” the Times reports. “But his limited ability in a divided government to affect the legislation and his inability before now to shape a compromise with House Republicans, many of them dedicated to never compromising with him, is proving the most significant test to date of his campaign promise to bridge the two parties and make Washington work.”
Political observers echo such concerns.
“I don’t think a president is ever completely helpless, but having said that, my interpretation of the nationally televised address that he gave was that he had no arrows left in his quiver,” Bill Galston, a former Clinton administration official, told the Times.
“If he’d had another card to play, that was surely the time to play it,” said Galston, who now is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution research organization. “He’s the ultimate decider but, on the other hand, I think his capacity to shape what gets to his desk has been substantially reduced.”
Galston noted that House Speaker John Boehner also has run into trouble getting Republicans on board with his own plan.
Former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, now a Republican strategist, observed that the fractious debt debate has put the president in a tight spot. “I think that his position on the issue is more broadly shared than Republicans would like to think, but he is damaging his leadership image because people don’t see him solving the problem,” Weber told the Times.
“I’m not saying the president has an easy task ahead of him and he can do it at the snap of his fingers,” Weber said. “I’m just saying in the end the failure to solve this problem is going to weigh more heavily on him than on anybody in Congress.”
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