This commentary first appeared in Suddeutsche Zeitung
At the moment when the Titanic struck the iceberg, the ship's captain was not on the bridge. Edward Smith had gone below deck to bed. Both before and after the collision, the captain proved himself to be worse than useless, issuing confused orders and failing to take control of the evacuation. He let the ship sail at full speed through the iceberg-riddled North Atlantic Ocean. Then while his ship was sinking, he made his sole useful contribution to the rescue efforts, sending an emergency signal out into the night.
Barack Obama is certainly not the most to blame for Washington's current drama, but the President does bear a sizeable portion of the guilt for allowing the US government to founder. Although the recent agreement means that America will avoid colliding with the debt ceiling and becoming insolvent, the catastrophe has been delayed rather than prevented. The United States is indeed sailing through perilous waters.
Until now Obama's opponents have acted so madly that his own mistakes have not been noticeable. It's easy to play the reasonable, composed politician when you're up against blockheaded, self-righteous nihilists like the Tea Party. It's easy to refuse all negotiations when the other side is acting like a wild bunch of blackmailers. Obama has played the PR game well, and situated himself firmly on the moral high ground. According to polls, he is winning the public-image contest hands down. However, gaining popularity should not be the President's top priority.
Posturing rather than leadership
Obama's task is to govern America. It is the President, and not some wild backbenchers, who is responsible for ensuring that the country continues to function. He may well wish that the Constitution did not give Congress the right to withhold the government's finances, but that has been the case since 1788 and it is not going to change any time soon.
Obama did not steer his country into dangerous waters but he has done shockingly little to prevent it from sinking amid the breakdown in negotiations in Washington. Over the last few weeks, as the dispute about the national budget and the debt ceiling raged, the public has heard two things from Obama: disparaging comments about his political opponents, and a promise never to negotiate with them.
While his criticisms may have been justified, they were not conducive to finding a solution. Obama was not prepared to make the slightest concession or stoop to negotiating with the Republicans. All the meetings in the White House and long telephone conversations with the opposition leaders were just for show.
Obama wanted a battle and he wanted to see his opponents concede defeat. He was not interested in coming to an agreement. Therefore we may be justified in saying that Captain Obama saw the iceberg on the horizon. He went below deck and left the rudder in the hands of a few clumsy stokers. Then, after the collision, he sent out an SOS.