The tantrum in a high chair
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.