Obama's Achilles' Heel
What the deficit-commission idea says about his politics.
But politics doomed the commission. George H.W. Bush had pledged "no new taxes" in order to get elected in 1988, and his opportunistic vow forced him to oppose the consensus plan. During the winter of 1988, as Bush planned to enter the White House, his aides Nicholas Brady and Richard Darman made common cause with Strauss and Drew Lewis, the commission chairmen. The two Washington panjandrums even appeared on Meet the Press to ratchet up the pressure, with Strauss noting that "if we had 48 hours … we could pretty well agree on a program right now."
Yet despite lobbying from his aides—and from his old friend from Skull and Bones, Thomas "Lud" Ashley, a commission member—Bush could not see his way clear toward breaking his anti-tax pledge even before his presidency began. And the more the incoming administration stressed its opposition, the more commission Democrats like Moynihan balked at climbing out on a limb—since it now seemed likely, as Strauss noted, to be sawed off. A plan to have the commission delay its report a year, to allow Bush a decent interval before flip-flopping, was also nixed by the White House. In a few months, the commission's consensus unraveled and the panel issued two predictable partisan reports.
In retrospect, the commission might have saved Bush's presidency. Bush broke his pledge anyway, in 1990, incurring lasting enmity from the hard right and driving many Republicans in 1992 to vote for independent Ross Perot, a deficit hawk, or even for Bill Clinton. Had Bush reneged on his anti-tax pledge and taken a hit at the very beginning, he might have regained some standing with the Republican base before the 1992 election. Equally important, he might have enjoyed a stronger economy in 1992, depriving Clinton of his most potent argument against the incumbent—that he wasn't active enough in addressing middle-class Americans' hardships.
But if one lesson of the National Economic Commission is that presidential leadership can make or break such panels, the corollary is more disheartening: that in the normal course of events, such commissions do nothing to attain the goals for which they're created. As Obama noted in his State of the Union speech, they usually wind up being "Washington gimmicks that let us pretend we solved a problem." The reason isn't just the kind of political cravenness that many people attributed to the elder Bush. More fundamentally, the conceit that politics can be removed from the equation is an illusion.
Getting consensus among political players with electoral constituencies to answer to is hard enough. Even stacking a commission with centrists who revere compromise, the Washington conventional wisdom, and the economic analysis that considers the federal deficit an urgent problem won't remove the pressures on elected officials or interest-group spokesmen to cling to the positions of the blocs they represent. And should such a commission manage to reach a delicate consensus anyway, that agreement still has to be vetted in the political arena, where it's likely to collapse. All it takes is a president or a few congressional leaders challenging the deal's fairness for other potential adherents to flee.
Despite his fondness for the Mugwump or Progressive rhetoric of transcending differences in the name of a common good, Obama probably knows that the idea of getting a commission to do what politicians otherwise won't do is—inescapably—a gimmick. Lasting legislation can only be hammered out through the messy process of negotiation, deal-making, and horse-trading, or through sheer partisan determination. This reality has always posed the most intractable challenges to Obama's worldview—challenges with which he has never, as candidate or as president, sufficiently reckoned: In the end, you can't take the politics out of politics.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.