By Jules Witcover
11:57 AM EDT, May 6, 2013
In President Barack Obama's running argument with the Republicans in Congress over who's responsible for the legislative stalemate on Capitol Hill, he suffers self-inflicted wounds by continuing to run up the same white flag that undermined his own efforts in his first term.
He did it again in his embarrassing cave-in to Congress' makeshift response to the air traffic controllers' furloughs that briefly stalled travel, acquiescing in shifting $253 million in Federal Aviation Administration funds to keep them on the job.
In so doing, he invited allegations of crumbling to legislators more concerned about getting to and from their districts than solving the fiscal sequester nightmare paralyzing the government.
The episode was particularly damaging to Mr. Obama by casting him as willing to single out the complaints of well-heeled frequent fliers for remedy. Meanwhile the rest of the American public — and especially the lower-income and middle-class folks — continued to suffer most from the across-the-board budget slashes dictated by the sequester.
At the outset, Mr. Obama gambled that the wrong-headed plan to apply an indiscriminate budget ax would shame or otherwise force the Republicans to deal with him on a combination of deficit reduction and economic stimulus. Unfortunately for him, many in the opposition party saw the sequester's deficit reduction as more than OK with them, even if it meant cutting previously sacrosanct defense spending.
The political trouble began with the insignificant but sensitive cutting off of White House tours, allowing shocked GOP lawmakers to gnash their teeth over barring touring tykes from the president's home. While Mr. Obama stayed on the stump crying wolf over more impending inconvenience, the sequester that was supposed to break the back of congressional resistance to more infrastructure structure held firm.
That is, until the man in the Oval Office, who said its awfulness would be so awful that Congress would give him his way, blinked. When a bill sailed through the Senate and House authorizing a shift of FAA funds to keep the air controllers on the job, Mr. Obama went ahead and signed it.
With that stroke of the presidential pen, he let the air out of his huffing and puffing about the killer sequester. And with the flying public, conspicuously including members of Congress, thus given relief, it was inevitable that other special interest groups from White House visitors to teachers facing furloughs would demand similar congressional intervention, and presidential acquiescence.
After Mr. Obama's frustrated first-term efforts to work with the opposition party of Capitol Hill, compounded by the GOP takeover of the House in 2010, he supposedly got a stiffened backbone transplant in his 2012 reelection. The story line was that now he would set out to rebuild his legacy, a more realistic president more willing in his final term to hold firm against that opposition with a strengthened voter mandate in his pocket.
In new second-term drives for stronger gun-control measures and a more vocally muscular foreign policy, he stumped energetically for the first and spoke of red lines and game-changers about U.S. engagement in Syria regarding the second. But gun control fell short, and his seeming backpedaling on Syria has muddled his foreign-policy message.
Already the administration is seen as looking down the road to the 2014 congressional elections as the president's best chance to salvage significant political gains in his last two White House years. But the odds seem to be slipping against a Democratic majority in the troublesome House and even in retaining control of the Senate.
As in the last five years, Barack Obama has struggled to gain the offensive against a dug-in Republican Party in Congress whose prime strategy seems to be to thwart him until help somehow, somewhere, is on the way. But with the GOP itself having no perceivable positive agenda or a way to achieve it, help is not in sight.
The whole scene is beginning to resemble World War I trench warfare. Both sides are grinding themselves down in a similar exercise in mutual — and willful — self-destruction, with an earnest but frustrated president increasingly hunkered down as well.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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