World and Nation

Obama sidestepped the deficit committee debacle

WASHINGTON — In remaining aloof from the special deficit committee in Congress even as it collapsed on Monday, President Barack Obama showed his calculation more clearly than ever before: Republicans will never agree to raise taxes on the wealthy to balance any spending cuts, so let the voters decide.

Congress still could reach a bipartisan compromise in the next month, or next year, to avoid the threat of automatic spending cuts, especially in military programs, in 2013. But the president is figuring that Congress will not, and he will campaign by contrasting what he calls his “balanced” approach to putting the nation on a solid fiscal footing again to Republicans’ anti-tax reliance on spending cuts, especially for Medicare and Social Security.

Yet the president’s strategy of not deeply engaging with Congress carries a big risk: that he will be seen as failing to lead on a serious threat to the country’s future, the mounting federal debt. And if Washington’s dysfunction extends to next November, voters show every sign of taking out their wrath on everyone involved — not least the occupant of the White House.

Republicans wasted no time trying to fan the idea of a leadership deficit in the White House, even before the deficit committee made its failure official on Monday.

“He’s done nothing,” said Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is seen by the Obama circle as the candidate most likely to be the Republican presidential nominee. “It’s another example of failed leadership.”

But Republicans were not alone in attacking. In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent, said the buck rests with the president.

“It’s the chief executive’s job to bring people together and to provide leadership. I don’t see that happening,” Bloomberg said at a news conference.

The White House rejects such criticism, even as the president and his advisers have long expected it. But the risk to his leadership image was one they decided to take back in August, after Obama’s prolonged summer fight with congressional Republicans over raising the nation’s debt limit had depressed his approval ratings to the lowest point of his presidency. The bigger risk, the advisers believed, would be to once again get in the budget weeds with lawmakers and again come up empty-handed.

“A president’s job is to lay out a plan and then rally the country to that plan,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “This president has done exactly that.

He put forward a detailed balanced $3 trillion deficit reduction plan, and overwhelming majorities of Americans support his approach. But, if at the end of the day, the other party decides that adhering to rigid ideological dogmas is more important than what the American people want, that’s their choice to make.”