Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four U.S. presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Cambridge, Massachusetts (CNN) -- In his budget speech yesterday, President Obama showed once again that he is a more masterful politician but less courageous leader than we might have imagined. What that will mean for the country's economic future remains deeply uncertain.
The president entered this year confident of re-election, but just to be sure, he adopted a clever political strategy to deal with a growing debt crisis: His budget would duck the hard question about deficits, leaving a vacuum for Republicans to fill. Around the White House, the thinking was that whoever went first in the budget wars would leave themselves vulnerable to heavy attack.
Unafraid, the Republicans went first. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposed a daring plan full of concrete specifics that would cut deficits by some $4 trillion over a decade. Ryan deserves credit for courage, but inevitably his plan has political vulnerabilities. On Wednesday, Obama pounced -- hard.
Karl Rove argued in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday morning that Republicans will benefit most from the budget debate because Obama has presided over massive increases in spending while bobbing and weaving on deficits. Rove may turn out to be right in the long run, but for the moment, Obama is the one who has framed the argument more shrewdly.
In essence, Obama is putting this question to voters heading toward the 2012 election:
Would you like to cut Medicare benefits in order to save tax increases for the wealthy? Or would you rather increase taxes on the wealthy in order to save Medicare?
Republicans, of course, say this is a complete distortion, etc., etc. Some of their points are valid. But as the Clintons learned with their health care plan some years ago, any time a politician wades into a contentious policy dilemma and tries to propose tough, honest answers, he is almost certain to leave himself open to withering attacks. That is what happened to the Ryan plan.
Inexplicably, Republicans in the House are now moving to embrace the Ryan plan by formal vote and by so doing, will make it not just Ryan's plan, but the central GOP position in the 2012 campaign. Given how easy it will be for Democrats to demagogue it, one wonders why. Once a Republican majority votes approval in the House, can any Republican nominee run away from the plan without splintering the party?
As a politician, Obama was also smart Wednesday in leaving so little for Republicans to shoot at in his own "plan". On every hard policy question -- e.g., would you start taxing employees for health benefits paid by employers -- he said he would leave the answers to someone else. On a national dilemma that will inevitably require public sacrifices, he didn't put forward a single, concrete proposal of his own that would disturb a majority of voters. Clever!
But it is that very cleverness that undermines his reputation as a leader. We look up to leaders who have been willing to make hard choices on their own, put them forward with courage and rally people to join them -- think of Lincoln, Churchill, Mandela and many more. The historian Michael Beschloss wrote a stirring book about the courage of past presidents. Where is that courage in the White House today?
Obama said in his speech that we must reform the tax system to produce more revenues. How? Let Congress figure it out, he said. We must limit the growth of Medicare to GDP plus a half percent a year. How? Leave that to an Independent Payment Advisory Board. We need built-in guarantees to reduce the deficits. How? Leave that to a failsafe mechanism that will automatically kick in around 2014 (never mind that Obama's former budget director says it could be unreliable).
We have been here before. Writing a stimulus bill? Leave that to Congress. Coming up with a health care plan? Leave that to Congress. Asserting control over Gadhafi? Leave that to NATO.
There have been times when the president, to his credit, has stuck his neck out. On tackling the nation's finances, he deserves credit for finally asserting that we must cut the deficits by $4 trillion over 12 years. Personally, as one who is fortunate to be in the high tax bracket, I also believe he is right to seek a return to Clinton era tax levels for the affluent. That, however, is an easy call for the White House: A majority of Americans agree. But on the hard issues -- the ones that are really hard -- the president once again isn't leading; he is delegating.
No one can tell for sure where Wednesday's speech leaves the country. Republicans are angry the speech was so partisan, and the gulf between them and the White House is dramatic.
The best hope is that the "Gang of Six" in the Senate comes up with a bipartisan plan that can break up the deadlock now emerging. If not, we likely won't see serious entitlement or tax reform until after the 2012 elections. And it will be a very close call whether Washington can come to an agreement that avoids a near-crisis over the debt ceiling this summer. These fun and games may be good for electioneering and for television ratings, but they aren't good for the country.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.