Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Adult Leadership Required to Clean Up the Mess in Washington

Obama and Boehner met in 2011 to discuss the debt in the White House's Cabinet Room. Obama and Boehner met in 2011 to discuss the debt in the White House's Cabinet Room. Carolyn Kaster/AP file photo

Funny what our leaders could learn by sweeping the stairs. This thought occurred to me the other day while I was morosely mulling the state of politics in Washington, and found an analogy in my living room.

Actually, my wife found it -- clumps of dirt on the steps, tracked inside by her husband and son. I wanted to whine and dissemble and divert. I wanted to blame my kid – or at least debate who was most at fault. I wanted to fold my arms and stomp my feet until somebody else cleaned up the mess.

That’s when it dawned on me:

@ron_fournier: "Wife says son and I tracked mud in house. I blamed son, saying he did it first and most. Look at me! I’m presidential. #sequestration."

As you might guess, that tweet inspired a spirited conversation about the difficulty of taking responsibility, both in life and in government. Participants included Jon Favreau, the Obama speechwriter who recently departed the White House. Like all analogies, this one has its limits. (For starters, I could have written just as appropriately, “Look at me! I’m the House Speaker!”)

But the case of the muddy steps sheds light on how disconnected from reality the debate in Washington has become. It helps explain why President Obama, as head of the national “household,” will ultimately be judged harshly by voters if the economy suffers -- even if he is less at fault on the merits. For Republicans, the analogy explains why the GOP is condemned to irrelevancy if tea-party conservatives continue to willfully muddy the national discourse.

In this analogy, my wife is the typical voter. By “typical,” I don’t mean blindly partisan conservatives and liberals who reflexively demonize their rivals and lionize their guy. The typical American is one who has lost faith in the federal government and both major parties.

The roles of Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are played by me and my son. We are interchangeable: If you’re a liberal, cast Obama as the father. If you’re a conservative, slip Boehner into that role.

@theolecompte: "Your son won’t let you get the mop out of the closet?”

This reader seemed to be asking how a capable leader (let’s say, Obama) deals with an obstinate kid (call him Boehner). @ron_fournier: "Once I stopped whining/blaming, I found the mop."

@jonfavs: “Was the mop $800 billion in congressionally authorized tax reform? Or was [it just] ‘leadership.”

I think Favreau was chiding me for boiling Washington’s problems down to a lack of leadership. Hoping to steer the conversation away from sequestration talking points, I played coy: @ron_fournier: “Sometimes a muddy floor is just a muddy floor. Wife not interested in whiny excuses. [She] wanted the damn floor clean.”

@marc_haber: "Is there a co-equal authority in your house with veto power over you mopping?”

Liberals hate it when any responsibility is pinned on Obama. They remind critics that there are three branches of government, and no dictator. Sticking with the analogy, I suggest that there are no excuses in parenthood: @ron_fournier: I’m just talking about life its own self – solving problems, leading a household. Not politics.”

@jonfavs: “Then you should go clean up that floor because the rest of us are trying to figure out #sequester.”

@ron_fournier: “I did get the bright idea to demand that a reporter tell me how to mop the floor. Wife unimpressed by Jedi tricks.” I admit it was somewhat of a cheap shot to refer to Obama’s news conference Friday, when he claimed to be powerless to overcome the GOP. To make his point (and to embarrass a reporter holding him accountable), Obama asked a journalist to tell him how she would bargain with Republicans. This seems to be a shockingly poor argument for any leader to make: Help me, I can’t do it.

As happens on Twitter, there was a separate and simultaneous conversation underway with somebody named @jeffreybillman and a few others.

@jeffreybillman: “That analogy fits if you intentionally push your son in the mud first.”

Jeff must believe that somebody in Washington is a bully who started the fight. You hear this at White House about Republicans, and from the GOP-controlled House about Democrats. The “he-did-it-first” chorus is a Washington crutch that doesn’t fly in real life. As I wrote recently in reference to the White House position, “You may be right, Mr. President, but this is crazy. My reply to Jeffrey was, @ron_fournier: “Ok. [I] would still have to clean it up.”

@deltalitprof: "Analogy would only work if son actually did do it and then admitted to it (as Cantor and Ryan have done)"

Ron Fournier

Ron Fournier is the Senior Political Columnist and Editorial Director of National Journal. Prior to joining NJ, he worked at the Associated Press for 20 years, most recently as Washington Bureau Chief. A Detroit native, Fournier began his career in Arkansas, first with the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record and then with the Arkansas Democrat and the AP, where he covered the state legislature and Gov. Bill Clinton.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec