Obama and the supercommittee — the time to lead is now

President Obama looks better for reelection today than any Republican could have possibly imagined as recently as six months ago. Recent polling shows him ahead of all Republican candidates in the pivotal swing state of Ohio, and he leads or is in a dead heat in the national polls against every GOP candidate, including Mitt Romney — this despite his low grades on handling the economy and the continued unemployment rate of 9 percent.  

Yet Obama still has one major stylistic liability that threatens his reelection: the perception of passive or belated leadership, or both.  

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Now, with only a few days left to the deadline for the supercommittee to report on recommendations for at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions, it is time for Obama to lead in breaking the stalemate — specifically, to suggest he can support the latest Republican proposal by supercommittee members, i.e., to raise $300 million by closing tax loopholes. 

Obama made two calls last Friday to the co-chairmen of the supercommittee, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) to urge a bipartisan agreement and warn that he would block any effort to prevent the sequestration, i.e., automatic cuts, of $1.2 trillion from defense and domestic spending equally. That was a good first step — but not nearly enough.  

The president needs to go further and persuade supercommittee Democrats to respond positively to the Republican proposal and begin final negotiations. He was given important political cover to do this when his home-state senator, Majority Whip Dick Durbin, immediately praised the Republican proposal for supporting revenue increases for the first time. 

Of course, Obama and most Democrats disagree with the GOP committee members’ proposal to reduce the top income tax bracket to 28 percent or to retain all the Bush-era tax cuts without adjustments for super-upper income brackets. With the national debt at $14 trillion and heading toward $15 trillion, this seems the wrong time for a substantial reduction in taxes. 

But with Obama stepping into a leadership role, he should be able to obtain a deal keeping current tax brackets in return for additional spending cuts and entitlement and Social Security reforms, along the lines proposed by the Bowles-Simpson Commission.   

Speaking of Bowles-Simpson, as I’ve written in this space, Obama missed an opportunity to show strong presidential leadership on the national debt by endorsing his own deficit commission’s report last January during his nationally televised State of the Union address. I suggested that Bowles and Simpson themselves be placed in the House gallery and, during his speech, Obama should ask each of them to stand. Then he should have challenged every member of the House and Senate on the floor to stand up to declare their support for Simpson-Bowles’s across-the-board approach to substantial deficit reduction. 

I fear Obama’s decision to go to Hawaii for an Asian economic summit during the crucial last week before the supercommittee’s Nov. 23 deadline will strengthen the perception of weak and belated presidential leadership.  

Most Americans are more fed up with the dysfunctional partisanship and paralysis in the legislature, with Congress’s approval rating at 9 percent. But if the supercommittee fails to report out a recommendation and Congress fails to approve, resulting in draconian $600 million cuts to both defense and domestic programs, then the American people will blame not only Congress but the president as well. And once again, Obama’s serious political liability — the perception of weak and belated leadership — would be made far worse.

So Mr. President, this is your opportunity — one that you and the country cannot afford to miss: Lead your party to essentially accept the Republican proposal and lead the final negotiation to reach a bipartisan deal on $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.  

You might anger some Democrats among your purist base. But you will strengthen your position among independents and centrists — the voters who will decide the election and who want, along with many other voters, a federal government that breaks the partisan gridlock and gets back into the solutions business. 

Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of the book “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.”