"Debt Drama Boils Down to a Tale of Two Men," a Washington Post article is seductively titled. It's President Obama and Speaker Boehner going tête à tête, and they're unfortunately not able to rise above the fray. The ongoing mess in the debt ceiling talks is a "Breakdown in Governing," another article informs us. This piece boldly declares, "Only real leadership and real compromise can resolve the way out of this crisis" (awkward formulation if taken literally, but you get the point).
I don't mean to single the WaPo out-- this is characteristic coverage of the debt ceiling negotiations. We expect these two politicians to suddenly develop an otherworldly quality to put all things aside and think from an impartial perspective. The coverage of negotiations over the last week (when Obama was saying a deal with Boehner was near) had the tone of two antagonists sitting down and realizing that their differences could be overcome by real communication.
This "lone decision maker" angle ignores the huge forces that go into the decision making process of anyone in such a position: political constituencies, private lobbying groups, economic advisers, political advisers, gauges of public opinion, party opinion, economic necessity, perceived economic necessity, and so forth. With all of these factors in play, I'm not sure how much room left there is for an individual to actually decide on anything.
So yeah, in some sense we're seeing Boehner and Obama sit down and disagree. But they're not disagreeing because of personal failures or animosity or even necessarily because of different ideologies. Rather, both men have gotten to where they are through a system that rewards the types of calculations which are now preventing a resolution to this crisis. They're weighing the political fallout, 2012 prospects, what checks to withhold in order to hurt the Republicans the most, etc. These calculations don't have a sort of a priori link to policy, but they do have a practical effect on whether a deal gets done and what that deal looks like.
The incredible number of outside factors make "leadership" a difficult quality to talk about-- but I think it's both unfair and simplistic to expect crisis itself to compel leaders to lead. In certain types of crises (perhaps like these debt ceiling negotiations), the short-term political advantage-- or simply, the "feasible" option-- can be retreat rather than constructive problem solving. Fully following this rabbit hole is out of the scope of this blog post, but suffice it to say that the makeup of our political system (corporate cash, patronage, short term thinking) doesn't seem to intrinsically reward those who can constructively lead in times of crisis. This goes against both our hopes and our expectations, which is maybe why we keep talking about crisis making the man.