Making tough calls is (and must be) its own reward

MAKING TOUGH CALLS IS (AND MUST BE) ITS OWN REWARD…. On “Meet the Press” yesterday, David Axelrod was understandably reluctant to go into details about upcoming budget negotiations with congressional Republicans. Host David Gregory asked how the White House can expect Democrats and Republicans “to make painful choices” if he’s not prepared to talk about budget specifics on the air.

The question didn’t quite work — it was a bit of a non sequitur — but the notion that the White House is somehow avoiding “painful choices” is clearly untrue. One only need consider the politically treacherous decisions this administration has tackled for two years.

Jon Chait had a sharp item on this the other day.

One of the defining beliefs of sensible-center Washington establishment types is that elected officials need to make Tough Decisions, including unpopular decisions, rather than just try to skate through to the next election. However, a second set of beliefs held by this group is that, if you do lose an election, this proves that all your ideas were not just politically unwise but substantively wrong.

What a good point. It’s taken as a given that honorable leaders aren’t supposed to consider polls or elections when facing serious challenges — they’re supposed to do what’s right, and make the “tough call” and “hard choice,” regardless of the political fallout. Those who don’t are necessarily deemed weak and irresponsible.

But Jon’s right that there’s no real political reward for following the right course. Pundits demand that tough leaders make unpopular decisions on the merits, but then those same pundits blast the leaders when the unpopular decisions prove to be … unpopular. Indeed, those decisions are necessarily deemed to be wrong by virtue of the fact that the electorate disapproved.

Here President Obama was doing all kinds of unpopular things — bailing out banks, bailing out the auto industry, cutting hundreds of billions from Medicare — because he felt those courses of action were responsible. And then he loses seats, in part because of those hard decisions, and now he’s supposed to admit that his policies were bad?

I can’t remember where I read it — someone help me out in comments [Update: there it is. Thanks, everyone] — but I saw a report recently about President Obama and his team taking a certain amount of pride in making decisions they knew would be unpopular. The White House officials believed it was their job to solve problems and make tough decisions, and that “painful choices” are just part of the job. If you’re too cowardly to do things that are unpopular, you probably shouldn’t be there anyway.

But it’s striking to me how little credit Obama gets for this, most notably from the same media figures who judge a leader based on his/her willingness to do unpopular things for the good of the country.

Maybe the Political Pundit Perpetual Panic Conflictinator doesn’t really know what it wants?