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 the Central Intelligence Agency 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 spare Obama. Ruth Marcus An editorial writer specializing in politics, the budget and other domestic issues, she also writes a weekly column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. Archive @RuthMarcusFacebookRSS Gallery The best of jokes about the government shutdown: In trying to make the best of a bad situation, late night comics have used Obama impersonators, mourned the loss of the panda cam and mocked Fox News’s coverage. Miley Cyrus lent Saturday Night Live a hand in a shutdown sketch. You may also like... On a (right and left) wing and a prayer Dana Milbank On a (right and left) wing and a prayer A breakthrough we need Matt Miller A breakthrough we need “We govern either by leadership or crisis. . . . If leadership is not there, then we govern by crisis,” Panetta said at the start of the session, sponsored by The Wall Street Journal.
“Clearly, this town has been governing by crisis after crisis after crisis.” Which raised the obvious question: What does this say 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 Clinton budget, Panetta recalled, “I think I sold about six bridges to get there.”) 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 have the right answers. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and you’ve got to really engage in the process . . . 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, recounted 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.” Panetta’s image of clustering 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 talks having collapsed between the White House and House Speaker John Boehner, and with the 11th-hour action shifted to Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.