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Bleeding from Behind

[Guest post by Alex Klein]

In a fine Ryan Lizza piece this April, a highly quotable White House official gave Obama’s foreign policy the unfortunate nickname “leading from behind.” As Jason Ukman just pointed out in the Washington Post, the phrase is becoming July's conservative cat-nip, and those on the left are scrambling to explain that it was misunderstood, mistimed, misrepresentative, misguided, et al. It’s the biggest linguistic Obama-apologia yet. Ukman:

Whatever one might think of that foreign policy, it is not the simplest one to articulate at a campaign rally. And for that, perhaps, Republicans can be grateful.

Or, as Lizza himself puts it:

I think the meaning of leading from behind has become slightly muddled…Despite the funny phrasing, at the heart of the idea of leading from behind is the empowerment of other actors to do your bidding…

Fair enough. Because far from the sunny climes of Libya, the ‘leading from behind’ doctrine is on full display in the debt-ceiling imbroglio. And it isn’t working. The President has taken a hectoring-from-above approach, consistently allowing and even encouraging Republicans to set the terms and drive the debate. At yesterday’s presser:

I don’t see a path to a deal if they don’t budge, period.

The dad-like consternation — the waiting for the kids to get their act together — is calculated: the President wants to look like the moderate, levelheaded adult in the room.

But when a deal is struck it will be the fiery, compromising-in-the-nick-of-time Republicans who will be visible and laudable out in front. It’s worth remembering that the President began this showdown a month ago by strictly instructing his party not to “draw lines in the sand.” But politically, the hard-line sandbox is the place to be. That’s why every time John Boehner and company pull another childish talk-withdrawal stunt, the President looks weaker — and why when the Republicans make even the smallest of concessions, they look patriotic.

Obama is certainly trying to “empower other actors” — namely the Republicans — to “do his bidding.” But he’s doing it by comparing them to prepubescent girls and telling them to eat their peas. It’s empowerment through embarrassment. This holier-than-thou nagging, as my fellow guest-blogger Matt Zeitlin has argued, only convinces Boehner to tough it out for the sake of 2012. No, the Republicans don’t look “stubborn” — they look principled. And no, Obama won’t look responsible — unless the GOP pushes the decision past August 2nd, which they won’t. 

I don’t subscribe to the theory that Boehner would gamely crash the economy to secure a Republican president in 2012. But I do believe that Obama started this fight by giving the GOP miles — not inches — to play in; and we should expect them to take political advantage up until the last possible moment. Obama is leading from behind on the debt ceiling by articulating a grand vision and leaving the dirty work of fighting it out to those below; the problem is that, in the Republicans, he has found about as reliable a foot-soldier as the Arab League.