Obama’s incompetent because he refused to cave?

I got into another interesting Twitter debate with the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto. In yesterday’s column, he argued that the lack of a deal to avert the sequester was evidence that:

… Obama is not very good at the job of being president. He does not seem able to command the congressional leadership’s respect or trust. Nor does he seem capable of striking fear into them. That needn’t mean ordering his guards to threaten them physically but rather making them feel there will be unpleasant political consequences if they don’t give him a deal.

I suggested that perhaps, instead, it was evidence that the GOP isn’t amenable to reason and unconcerned with “unpleasant political consequences.” Or, given the bubble today’s GOP lives in, completely unaware that those political consequences will fall on them far more heavily than the president. In any case, the GOP clearly wasn’t willing to accept a deal other than one that gave them everything they wanted: A sequester alternative made entirely of cuts, and cuts that fell heavily on domestic spending.

We went back and forth a little, and I finally asked him this: “Serious question: Beyond a complete cave, what could Obama have done to get a deal from GOP that he didn’t try?”

What I got back was very telling: “Your premise is that Obama is competent unless I can instruct him specifically how to do his job?”

I replied: ” If you can’t even envision a scenario in which he could succeed, I’d say that’s indication he’s done what he could do.”

Taranto rather nonsensically replied with: “Which is entirely consistent with what I wrote. His own incapacity limited ‘what he could do.’ ”

I don’t understand that, since it was Republican intransigence, not Obama’s incapacity, that limited what he could do. So I asked Taranto what a president without whatever weakness Taranto ascribed to him — an LBJ, Clinton or Reagan — could have done.

Taranto went silent after that. I engaged with a few of his more reasonable Twitter minions (Twinions?), and Taranto weighed in again hours later, but, again, didn’t answer the question: Other than a complete cave on Obama’s part, what deal would Republicans have accepted? So I asked yet again, and got this telling reply:

“Beats me. But I did not claim I am more competent to do Obama’s job than Obama is.”

This reminded me of Ron Fournier’s  response to the pushback he got to a column he wrote making a similar point to Taranto’s original: The inability to strike a sequester deal with a party that is absolutely unwilling to compromise was somehow Obama’s fault. When Obama adviser David Pfeiffer asked him how he’d deal with the GOP in this situation, Fournier responded, “Very fair point. If I had one, I might be President. Luckily for the nation, I never presumed to lead. Those who did now must.”

In other words, neither man has a clue how Obama could negotiate with a party that refuses compromise, but damn it, it’s his fault for not figuring it out.

No. The fault lies with the party that thinks negotiation involves repeatedly demanding everything you want, repeatedly refusing to offer a single concession and repeatedly lying about the cuts the president has already offered and the cuts that have already been put in place.

Look, both Taranto and Fournier are right in this: They weren’t elected president. It’s Obama’s job to deal with Congress. But the fact that neither one of them can even begin to describe a deal Obama could have reached with the GOP short of complete capitulation doesn’t leave either much room to criticize his performance.

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