Barack Obama speaks from the White House briefing room, Sunday, July 31, 2011. AP/Politico
The Guardian's headline today is "Obama strikes deal" and it reports that the president "reached an agreement" with Democratic and Republican leaders. Well yes, but only in the technical sense. The political truth is that the party leaders reached an agreement with each other, whilst the White House watched anxiously from the sidelines.
To put it even more precisely, the Democrats agreed to agree with the Republicans. Make no mistake: the two parties did not meet halfway. One of them travelled all the way over to the other one's house and knocked on the door. The Republicans barely made it down to the hall. From a Democratic or merely centrist point of view this is, as the New York Times puts it in an unusually unequivocal editorial, "a terrible deal".
Why did we end up here? Partly because the congressional GOP not only has a majority in the House but has a larger share of unyielding ideologues, who, without fully achieving their goals, succeeded marvellously in pulling the whole debate to the right.
But it's also because, right from the beginning of this process, the president chose not impose himself on it, and in (not) doing so, failed to exert a countervailing force to the Tea Partiers. Just as during the healthcare debate, Obama has been a strangely absent presence throughout, declining to set clear goals or intervene with any force or sense of direction, always allowing others to set the pace. Before yesterday, that could be portrayed as patient and wily. Today, it is revealed as passive and weak.
It's odd: Obama only gets worked up about means, not ends. He seems more interested in process, than the outcome of the process. His major interventions, like his televised speech on Monday night, contain pleas for the parties to come together, and schoolmasterly admonishments to Washington politicians. But his political mission is still as vague and unformed as it was in 2008. He is content to preach, rather than lead. The nadir of this approach was reached over the weekend, when he asked his followers to Tweet the word "compromise" to their Republican representatives. Is this what he meant, back then, by audacity? A plaintive plea for compromise with hardline conservatives?
Obama has been forced to agree to a deal that makes him seem impotent and which may weaken the economy, thus hurting his reelection chances. He's also proven, definitively, that he's not the leader he promised to be.