The tantrum in a high chair

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - Opin­ion by Wes­ley Pru­den

Ev­ery mom who has ever been at her wit’s end rec­og­nizes Barack Obama. The pres­i­dent who ear­lier nagged Congress that it was time for Amer­i­cans to “eat our peas” fi­nally threw his own peas to the floor and banged his spoon on his sup­per dish. Such a tantrum in a high chair is a fa­mil­iar sight in a lot of kitchens.

“Enough is enough,” the pres­i­dent cried, frus­trated by the tense bud­get talks at the White House. “Don’t call my bluff,” he told his Repub­li­can tor­men­tors. “I’m go­ing to the Amer­i­can peo­ple.”

If a pout and a sulk is fa­mil­iar to Mom, ev­ery 2-year-old in town can un­der­stand the pres­i­dent’s an­gry frus­tra­tion. Throw­ing your peas on the floor, par­tic­u­larly if they’re of the English va­ri­ety, tast­ing of copy pa­per and slid­ing down a tiny throat like un­lu­bri­cated ball bear­ings, is the in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion ev­ery tantrum-thrower yearns for. But it’s a pres­i­den­tial strat­egy we haven’t seen be­fore.

These are not the cheers and hosan­nas the prince of Hyde Park imag­ined for him­self when he agreed to step down from on high to as­sume the pres­i­den­tial pur­ple. It’s go­ing on three years, and the na­tives are rest­less. They keep ask­ing im­per­ti­nent ques­tions. Rep. Eric Can­tor, the leader of the Repub­li­can House ma­jor­ity, ig­nited the pres­i­dent’s ire when he sug­gested the pres­i­dent and the Democrats take a smaller bud­get deal than His Ex­cel­lency wants. The pres­i­dent — “he got very agi­tated,” in the telling of Mr. Can­tor, who was there — did not ap­pre­ci­ate such lack of re­spect for roy­alty.

Harry Reid, the pres­i­dent’s liege man in the Se­nate, wanted to boot Mr. Can­tor from the talks. “He shouldn’t even be at the ta­ble,” the ma­jor­ity leader said. No tea and cook­ies for him. Some Democrats dis­puted the de­tails in the Repub­li­can ac­count, but there was gen­eral agree­ment that Mr. Obama lost his cel­e­brated cool. And why not? So far, the bud­get talks have been a clas­sic stand­off be­tween the pres­i­dent, who is de­ter­mined to raise taxes to make the wel­fare state grow, and the Repub­li­cans, who are de­ter­mined to cut the bi­par­ti­san spend­ing that threat­ens to spin the econ­omy into an abyss of un­known depth.

The pres­i­dent’s tantrum can have a pos­i­tive ef­fect, how­ever, if it cap­tures the full at­ten­tion of the pub­lic. Talk of the econ­omy makes the av­er­age voter’s head hurt, his teeth itch and his Jockey shorts bunch up un­der his belt. The econ­omy has al­ways been like al­ge­bra, dif­fi­cult to grasp, and vot­ers have been will­ing to leave the al­ge­bra to the ad­vo­cates for the tax-eaters. That may be chang­ing as one and all be­gin to rec­og­nize that the good life is at risk — the car, the boat, col­lege for the kids, trop­i­cal va­ca­tions in Maui. The ex­cep­tional nation may be at risk of be­com­ing like the toy na­tions of Europe.

Pres­i­dent Obama plays the empty threat to with­hold Grandma’s So­cial Se­cu­rity check. Ben S. Bernanke, chair­man of the Fed­eral Re­serve, warns of “a huge fi­nan­cial calamity” if Congress re­fuses to raise the debt limit. This echoes the lamen­ta­tions of Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Ti­mothy F. Gei­th­ner as well as the new chair­man of the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund. Moody’s, the fi­nan­cial ser­vice that mea­sures such things, piles on, with the dire threat that U.S. bonds could be down­graded. Maybe. It all smells like a con­trived cam­paign to put pres­sure on the Repub­li­cans to cave just as they have the at­ten­tion of the pres­i­dent and his fright­ened Democrats.

The scheme of Sen. Mitch McCon­nell, leader of the Repub­li­cans in the Se­nate, to give the pres­i­dent the au­thor­ity to raise the debt limit with­out se­ri­ous cuts and bear the con­se­quences, looks bet­ter to the Repub­li­cans than it did when he in­tro­duced it and was scorched for his trou­ble by some con­ser­va­tives as the usual Repub­li­can sell­out artist. Democrats squealed like stuck pigs. They nat­u­rally don’t want this re­spon­si­bil­ity be­cause they un­der­stand the even­tual con­se­quences of con­tin­u­ing to live it up like pigs in the slophouse. Mr. Obama wants Repub­li­cans to share the “credit” for his in­com­pe­tent man­age­ment of the econ­omy.

The ver­dict of his­tory, though on the way, is not quite at hand. The ver­dict of 2012 soon will be and looms over ev­ery­thing. It’s enough to make a pres­i­dent, swad­dled with a bad sit­u­a­tion he made much worse, bang his sup­per dish with his spoon and throw his peas on the floor.

Wes­ley Pru­den is edi­tor emer­i­tus of The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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