Leading from the front

Twice in as many days, congressional Democrats have criticized President Obama’s leadership.

On Tuesday, The Hill reported that many in the House feel they were jilted by their leader after Republicans won the House last November, and there is much grumbling about being taken for granted.

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That was the House. Today, complaints are heard from within the Senate. Some Democrats there feel Obama has not used the bully pulpit of his office effectively and so has failed to convince the public of the urgency of raising the debt ceiling and ensuring that America pays its creditors. The administration says not raising the ceiling would be a calamity but, even as days tick by toward the Aug. 2 deadline, the public does not appear to believe we are headed for crisis.

The consequence of widespread public opposition to raising the debt ceiling, Democrats argue, is that Republicans have found it easier to take a hard line against tax hikes being included in any deal to cut the federal deficit. If the public felt due alarm over the possibility of a national default, Republicans would fear blame if no deal were to be reached and would therefore be more pliable in negotiations with Democrats. That, at least, is the argument.

However true the substance of these complaints, both can be explained partly by the perception that Obama is disengaged — disengaged from his party in the case of the House, and disengaged from the public in the case of the debt ceiling.

A political leader’s greatest strengths can become dangerous weaknesses. Obama has a cerebral, measured and thoughtful demeanor, as his most ardent supporters acknowledge or boast, which underlay references, during the 2008 campaign, to “No-drama Obama.” When the financial system imploded during that summer, Obama’s calm detachment served him well, for he looked much more mature and assured than his more experienced opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who precipitously suspended his campaign, rushed back to Washington — and found that he had nothing much to say or do.

But what was admired as an unflappable temperament, and thus a strength, can come to be seen as ineffectual. Being above the fray can seem lofty and can be very effective when it is temporarily suspended and a leader swoops in to save the day. But if it dwindles into a sense of routine aloofness, it is not a quality that rallies lawmakers or the public.

Now the debt-ceiling issue is in the president’s hands. There is a strong sense in Washington that as America’s summer passes July 4, Obama needs to roll up his sleeves and show that in this crisis of government, the country has a leader it can rely on. The peril of engagement is that it ties a politician to the outcome of his efforts, whether those be success or failure. But disengagement has recently become more dangerous that its opposite.