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Where are the adults in Washington?

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama and Speaker Boehner blame each other for lack of progress on debt talks
  • Gloria Borger: Obama didn't bring serious proposals on debt to news conference
  • Borger says he missed an opportunity to show real leadership
  • Borger: Republicans are taking positions that preclude compromise

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is chief political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA," and "State of the Union."

Washington (CNN) -- Call me old-fashioned, but when the president and congressional leaders get into a tussle over who should be "leading" the country in matters of real national consequence, I feel like sending them to their rooms.

"Call me naive," President Obama said at his news conference today. "But my expectation is that leaders are going to lead."

Mine, too.

So imagine my surprise when the president came to his own press conference -- which he called -- without anything much new to say on possible ways get to a deal to raise the national debt ceiling. Plenty of talk about gamesmanship, about deadlines and about how even Sasha and Malia are mature enough to do their schoolwork before it's due.

Oh, and by the way, the president also told us, Congress isn't actually here enough to get its homework done. "They are in one week, they are out one week," he told us helpfully, as if perhaps we should mark our calendars. "You need to be here. I've been here. I've been doing Afghanistan and Bin Laden and the Greek crisis."

He is, after all, the president. Good to know that he's doing his job.

And it's not that he's wrong about Congress ducking responsibility; it's just hard to see how that counts as news.

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What might actually have counted as news is if the president, as the nation's leader, had proposed a definitive way out of the budget mess -- or at least drawn some lines in the sand.

Instead, we learned that we need a "balanced approach" to the debt mess. That Obama is willing to "tackle entitlements" (presuming, of course, that nothing is done to touch Medicare beneficiaries). And that taxes -- the kinds that affect "millionaires and billionaires," corporate titans and their personal jets -- should be on the table.

Just for the record, getting rid of a tax break for corporate jets may be a fine idea, but it isn't going to solve the deficit problem since it will amount to only about $3 billion over the next decade. But it's a good line.

Sure, the president is probably tired of hearing Republicans rant about his "failed presidency" when one of their congressional leaders walks out of the budget talks. And in going public with his ire -- and assigning blame to the GOP -- the president all but said that the talks had collapsed. His was a clear and intentional venting of frustration. What was less clear is just how he intends to channel his inner leader.

The president hinted that defense spending would have to take a hit. (On the table, sources tell me, is the possibility of a freeze on defense spending.) And some have argued that the promise of an overhaul of the tax code -- real reform that could lower overall rates but take away some sacrosanct deductions -- should be a part of this discussion. But we didn't hear about any of that, because those are tough choices, and they haven't been made. This was about politics and positioning to get the upper hand in the looming debt limit battle.

We did hear about the possibility of extending the payroll tax cut. (Costly, but not tough.) Or extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class. (Same premise.) But the president had to admit that these things only make sense in the context of an overall -- and substantial -- deficit-reduction package. And, as he put it, first things first: "What we need to do is to restore business confidence and the confidence of the American people that we are on track."

Exactly.

This is not to say that the Republicans should be off the hook here. They've got a field of presidential candidates who believe that defaulting on the national debt wouldn't be such a bad thing. (In truth, Obama couldn't even explain how bad it would really be out of fear of sparking a global meltdown.) And Speaker of the House John Boehner, in response to Obama, refused to buy into even the most popular of tax hikes -- including ending tax subsidies for oil companies.

"The new majority in the House is going to stand with the American people," Boehner bravely declared. "A debt limit increase can only pass the House if it includes spending cuts larger than the debt limit increase; includes reforms to hold down spending in the future; and is free from tax hikes. The longer the president denies these realities, the more difficult he makes this process. "

So, according to Boehner, the president is living in a dream world. And according to Obama, the congressional Republicans "need to do their job. Now's the time to go ahead and make the tough choices."

Indeed, adds Obama, "that's why they're called leaders."

Really? I thought that would involve leading.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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