Thinking about Obama on MLK Day: Governing with Republicans?

Barack Obama, official portrait (cropped) © Pete Souza |

It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day and I am thinking about the Obama Presidency. I reject the simpleminded criticisms of Obama in the name of King, such as those presented by Cornell West. I think we have to look closely at the political challenges the President has faced. In an earlier post, I assessed Obama’s political performance on the political economy working with a Democratic Congress. Today I consider his work with Republicans. I think it is noteworthy that he kept focus on long-term goals, even as he experienced ups and downs in the day-to-day partisan struggles. I believe he kept his “eyes on the prize.” Although King’s project is incomplete, Obama is, albeit imperfectly, working to keep hope alive. This is more apparent as Obama is now working against the Republicans, pushed by the winds of Occupy Wall Street, the topic for another day. It is noteworthy, though, that it was even the case during the less than inspiring events of the past year.

Responding to the Republican victories in the 2010 elections, the President had to face a fundamental fact: elections do indeed have consequences. While his election provided the necessary mandate for his economic policies and for healthcare reform, the Republican subsequent gains in the House and Senate, leading to a smaller majority for the Democrats in the Senate and the loss of the House, empowered the Republican calls for change in policies. And, even though divided government became a reality and gridlock was the basic condition, action was imperative. The sluggish economy, long-term budget deficits and the debt ceiling defined the agenda after the bi-election. The approaches of the Republicans and the Democrats could not have been more different.

Obama had a choice, to fight the Republicans head on, or to try to accommodate the new political situation and seek compromise. He chose compromise. It wasn’t pretty, nor was it particularly successful as a political tactic.

The Republicans made clear that their first priority was to turn Obama into a one-term president, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell infamously . . .

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