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The president is the best bet to find way out of deadlock

By William Howell, Special to CNN
  • William Howell: Obama has been willing to bargain and compromise with Republicans
  • GOP insistence on cuts to domestic spending only shows it's out of touch, he writes
  • Congress doesn't have leadership to address the toughest problems, he says
  • Howell: Traditionally, a president is more likely to have whole nation's interests at heart

Editor's note: William Howell is the Sydney Stein professor in American politics at the University of Chicago.

Chicago (CNN) -- Democrats are aghast. They have every right to be. At least for now.

Two weeks away from the federal government defaulting on its debts -- how, pray tell, has this come to pass? President Obama appeared more than willing to bargain and compromise with congressional Republicans. He put some of the Democrats' sacred cows on the auction block.

The details remain foggy, and closed-door negotiations continue. But the essentials seem reasonably clear. In exchange for the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts for Americans with annual incomes of more than $250,000, Obama agreed to trillions in cuts in domestic spending, cuts both to discretionary programs as well as entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

Opportunities to reduce spending in these kinds of programs come around once in a generation. But that it was a Democratic president hoisting the ax and the Republican Party leadership offering a last-minute reprieve turns a rarity into an anomaly.

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With a historic agreement within reach over the weekend, House Speaker John Boehner flinched, admitting that he simply did not have the votes for any deficit reduction bill that included tax increases of any kind. In doing so, Republicans brandished their credentials as the party of no tax increases, regardless of their size, their intended purpose or the people who would incur them.

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There are plenty of reasons to oppose tax increases, both political and social. But so too are there plenty of reasons to oppose deep cuts in spending, particularly when the economy continues to falter. By insisting that any efforts to curtail the federal deficit come exclusively from reductions in outlays, congressional Republicans revealed either their utter incomprehension of the problem or their steadfast unwillingness to engage in political compromise.

Let's recall Democrats' response to the previous president's efforts to reform Social Security in 2005 and immigration in 2007.

Bush, to be sure, faced his share of opponents within his own party. And there are ample reasons to object to the plans he then put forward (as there are to Obama's today). But rather than join a substantive debate about how best to deal with the long-term integrity of Social Security and an immigration system that, all serious-minded folk concede, is broken, Democrats provided the president with precious little cover when confronting opposition within his own ranks over anything that looked like amnesty, just as they steadfastly opposed the president at every step on Social Security. As a result, the challenges of reforming both programs were kicked down the road.

When a Republican inhabited the White House, congressional Democrats did not rally behind any alternative policy reforms. Their policy solutions may have been flawed. Their political strategies may have been clumsy. But Bush was then, and Obama is now, willing to grapple with issues that lack obvious solutions, that require genuine sacrifice, and that are not going to disappear any time soon.

This is no accident. If you're looking for leadership, the kind of leadership that will recognize, define and offer solutions to entrenched social problems, you're most likely to find it in the president. It is the president, after all, who serves the entire nation and retains the formal powers, informational resources and political incentives to attend to its long-term welfare.

Congress, by contrast, is a collective decision-making body in which 535 voting members from nearly as many districts and states vie for influence, struggle to direct portions of the federal government's largesse back home and keep their gazes fixed on the next elections.

The rising polarization of the parties, the premium placed on fundraising and the devolution of powers within the two chambers have only made it more difficult to effect meaningful, coordinated change within Congress.

A largely academic debate about the proper boundaries of presidential power has continued for the past decade. This debate has largely focused on national security, war-making, the treatment of detainees and the like. Plenty of books have been written on the topic, intermittently lamenting the re-emergence of an imperial presidency and extolling the unique capacities of presidents to address foreign threats. (For recent installments, see Adrian Vermeule and Eric Posner's "The Executive Unbound," and Bruce Ackerman's "The Decline and Fall of the American Republic").

It's time this conversation enlists the participation of the broader public and turns its attention to domestic policy. These are issues that concern more people than law professors. And it is on domestic policy, where members of Congress have a real penchant for sabotaging reform, that the stakes may be highest.

As a nation, we should reflect not only on what good policy looks like, but who is likely to deliver it. If it is the president -- and there are powerful reasons to believe it is -- then we have an obligation to consider institutional reforms that might strengthen his, or someday her, influence over public policy.

Of course, debates about institutional reform are just as thorny as debates about policy reform. Numerous competing considerations are in play, constitutional and otherwise.

But political institutions are not fixed in stone. They can, and as the reforms linked to the Progressive and New Deal eras made clear, be altered to suit the needs of successive generations. Given its current state, Congress is unlikely to deliver the leadership needed to address the vexing problems associated with Social Security, immigration, energy and, today, deficit spending.

An invigorated presidency just might.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Howell.

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