WASHINGTON — Let us hear no more about President Obama leading from behind.
Since a White House adviser uttered that phrase to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza in 2011 to describe Obama’s leadership in Libya, “leading from behind” has become a favorite refrain of Republicans trying to portray Obama as weak.
Rep. Darrell Issa (California) detected “a policy of leading from behind, of indecision” in Syria. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) said Obama’s “strategy of leading from behind meant (Moammar) Gaddafi’s weapons stockpiles went unsecured.” Sen. Dan Coats (Indiana) said Obama’s insistence on higher taxes was more evidence that “the president continues to lead from behind.” Rep. Doc Hastings (Washington) even said “the American people have been waiting for the Obama administration to stop leading from behind” — and to hurry up approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.
But the last use of the phrase I could find in the congressional record was on Oct. 2, at the start of the shutdown, when. Sen. John Barrasso (Wyoming) said Obama had been “once again attempting to lead from behind in a crisis.”
They aren’t saying that now.
Obama got out in front of the shutdown and debt-ceiling standoff. He took a firm position — no negotiating — and he made his case to the country vigorously and repeatedly. Republicans miscalculated, assuming Obama would once again give in. The result was the sort of decisive victory rarely seen in Washington skirmishes.
On Wednesday, Republicans surrendered. They opened the government and extended the debt limit with virtually no conditions. On Thursday, Obama rubbed their noses in it.
“You don’t like a particular policy or a particular president? Then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election,” Obama taunted them from the State Dining Room. “Push to change it, but don’t break it. Don’t break what our predecessors spent over two centuries building.”
Obama said “there are no winners” after the two-week standoff, but his opponents, particularly his tea-party foes, clearly lost the most; seven in 10 Americans thought Republicans put party ahead of country. These “extremes” who “don’t like the word ‘compromise’” were the obvious target of Obama’s demand that we all “stop focusing on the lobbyists and the bloggers and the talking heads on radio and the professional activists who profit from conflict.” (He did not mention newspaper columnists, so you are free to continue reading.)
The gloating was a bit unseemly, but the president is entitled to savor a victory lap. The more important thing is that Obama maintain the forceful leadership that won him the budget and debt fights. In that sense, the rest of Obama’s speech had some worrisome indications he was returning to his familiar position in the rear.
The agreement ending the shutdown requires Congress to come up with a budget by Dec. 13. It’s a chance — perhaps Obama’s last chance — to tackle big issues such as tax reform and restructuring Medicare. The relative strength he gained over congressional Republicans during the shutdown left him in a dominant negotiating position. If he doesn’t use his power now to push through more of his agenda, he’ll lose his advantage. George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove called it the “perishability” of political capital.
But instead of being forceful, Obama was vague. He spoke abstractly about “the long-term obligations that we have around things like Medicare and Social Security.” He was similarly elliptical in saying he wants “a budget that cuts out the things that we don’t need, closes corporate tax loopholes that don’t help create jobs, and frees up resources for the things that do help us grow, like education and infrastructure and research.”
Laudable ideas all — but timidity and ambiguity in the past have not worked for Obama. The way to break down a wall of Republican opposition is to do what he did the last two weeks: stake out a clear position and stick to it. A plan for a tax-code overhaul? A Democratic solution to Medicare’s woes? As in the budget and debt fights, the policy is less important than the president’s ability to frame a simple message and repeat it with mind-numbing regularity.
If there’s going to be a big budget deal, the president eventually will have to compromise, perhaps even allowing some changes to his beloved Obamacare, which he didn’t mention while on his victory lap Thursday. Even then, forceful leadership may not be enough to prevail.
But he has a much better chance if he remains out in front. Otherwise, he’ll soon be knocked back on his behind.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.