By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON: Leon Panetta served in Washington with nine presidents, starting with Lyndon Johnson. He has been a member of Congress, Office of Management and Budget director, White House chief of staff, director of Central Intelligence and secretary of defense — the last two under President Obama. He is a man who knows Washington, and knows how to choose his words. So Panetta’s implicit rebuke of the president’s hands-off approach to the budget crisis at a breakfast Monday was striking.
Indeed, implicit may be an understatement. Asked repeatedly whether he was being correctly understood as critical of President Obama, Panetta was careful to assert that “I don’t want to put it all on the president” and that there is “enough blame to go around.” But he did not back down.
“It’s hard to watch what’s going on here,” Panetta said at the start of the session, sponsored by the Wall Street Journal. He noted that there are two ways of governing: by leadership or by crisis. “This town has been governing by crisis after crisis after crisis,” he said.
Which raised the obvious question: Was he saying something about the president’s leadership?
Several observations ensued. “This town has gotten a lot meaner in the last few years.” Relationships have deteriorated. Redistricting into safe seats hasn’t helped. Neither has the explosion of money in campaigns, or the elimination of earmarks. (Negotiating one Bill Clinton budget, “I think I sold about six bridges to get there,” Panetta recalled.)
Then, to Obama. “This president — he’s extremely bright, he’s extremely able, he’s somebody who I think certainly understands the issues, asks the right questions and I think has the right instincts about what needs to be done for the country.”
Next came the “but” — without a name but with a clear message. “You have to engage in the process. This is a town where it’s not enough to feel you’ve got the right answer. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves … listening to other people, figuring out what they need … that’s what governing is all about.”
Bloomberg’s Al Hunt asked Panetta how Clinton would have handled the current situation differently. “We were negotiating up to the last minute in the Oval Office” before the 1995 shutdown, recalled Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff. “Some of us were nervous that Bill Clinton was bending over backwards to try to see if he could get a deal done.”
Panetta’s image of being clustered in the Oval Office with all the key players — Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, plus Clinton and Vice President Gore — offered a vivid contrast to the current state of play, with the talks collapsed between White House and House Speaker John Boehner, and with the 11th-hour action shifted to the Senate leaders, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.
To some extent, the reporters in the room seemed more forgiving of the circumstances in which the president finds himself. Jackie Calmes of the New York Times noted that the Panetta-envisioned budget deal was illusory because Republicans were insistent that there be no new tax revenue. Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times observed that the White House would argue that its previous efforts at schmoozing and deal-making had gone nowhere.
“Just because you’ve engaged in some set of negotiations and they haven’t gone anywhere, for one reason or another there’s been a breakdown, is no reason to walk away from the table,” Panetta said. “In this town, you’ve got to stay with it. You’ve got to stay at it.”
The solution, Panetta added, is not “some razzle-dazzle super-committee or group of muckety-mucks from the outside world. That hasn’t worked. They are going to have to do it in the context of the conference of the budget.” Locked in a room, if need be, until differences are resolved, as happened with the 1990 budget summit at Andrews Air Force Base. “I spent three months at Andrews Air Force Base going through this crap,” Panetta recalled.
As to the notion any proposal associated with Obama was inherently toxic to Republicans, Panetta said, “If the president, for whatever reason, feels he can’t do it because the Republicans don’t want to confront him, then he ought to be willing to delegate that responsibility to someone who can do it.”
I’ve got a stellar candidate in mind. His name is Leon Panetta. He seems awfully happy back home in Carmel Valley, Calif. But he also remembers the way to Andrews — and what it takes to get things done once you arrive.
Marcus is a Washington Post columnist. She can be reached at ruthmarcus@washpost.