Thinking about Obama on MLK Day: Governing with Republicans?

Barack Obama, official portrait (cropped) © Pete Souza | change.gov/newsroom

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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Can Washington Matter? The Case Against the Supercommittee

President Obama presenting "The American Jobs Act" to Congress © Chuck Kennedy, 9/12/2011 | WhiteHouse.gov

There is a growing expectation that Washington may address the jobs crisis in a significant way with the possibility of major parts of “The American Jobs Act” becoming law, The New York Times reports today.  A key to this could be the supercommittee, officially called  the “Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.” Casey Armstrong considers whether it is likely to be up to its bi-partisan tasks. The question of American governability is on the line. -Jeff

Last month, I speculated that the supercommittee had the potential to help drag our legislature into a more authentic form of bipartisanship, a bipartisanship based on principled mutual compromise in the tradition of Henry Clay. I expressed my belief that the makeup of the committee would determine its ability to affect change. In that respect, the prospect of the committee changing the status quo now seems bleak. There is great opportunity but the membership of the committee suggested that the opportunity will be missed.

The Committee on Deficit Reduction is nominally a “joint select committee.” Emphasis should be given to the “joint” nature. Select committees generally suggest, but don’t legislate.  In the present supercommittee, I see the spirit of the conference committees that resolve contentions between Senate and House bills. “Going to conference” offers possibilities of compromise that would not have previously existed for the conferees in their respective chambers or standing committees. Conference rules state that “the conferees are given free reign to resolve their differences without formal instructions from their bodies.” Senate scholar Walter Oleszek quoted an anonymous Senate leader opining, “Conferences are marvelous. They’re mystical. They’re alchemy. It’s absolutely dazzling what you can do.”

In the Obama budget talks, posturing was encouraged by heightened visibility. Separate branches of government competed for authority. With the supercommittee, we move to what Erving Goffman called the “backstage.” The individual actors have more agency to shape the outcome than . . .

Read more: Can Washington Matter? The Case Against the Supercommittee

Voters have Demanded a Change, Again

Picture 13

For the Republicans, the election returns indicate a clear mandate, the repudiation of the policies of the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress.  This was boldly expressed in the joint press conference of Representative John Boehner, Senator Mitch McConnell and Governor Haley Barbour.  For the Democrats, the results of the election are humbling, indicating the need for bi-partisanship, as the President spoke about yesterday in his press conference. Was this just opposing tactical responses to the returns?  I don’t think so.  In fact, I believe that it is the President who is responding to the change the voters believe in, while the Republicans are misreading the election results.

The Republicans were combative:

Senator Mitch McConnell:

We’ll work with the administration when they agree with the people and confront them when they don’t. Choosing — I think what our friends on the other side learned is that choosing the president over your constituents is not a good strategy. There are two opportunities for that change to occur. Our friends on the other side can change now and work with us to address the issues that are important to the American people, that we all understood. Or further change, obviously, can happen in 2012.

Governor Haley Barbour:

On behalf of the Republican governors, while governor’s races may be thought of as being separate or very different from what’s going on in Washington, in this case, even in governor’s races, this election was a referendum on Obama’s policies. And the policies of the Obama administration, the Pelosi-Reid Congress were repudiated by the voters.

Representative John Boehner:

Listen, I believe that the health care bill that was enacted by the current Congress will kill jobs in America, ruin the best health care system in the world, and bankrupt our country. That means that we have to do everything we can to try to repeal this bill and replace it with commonsense reforms that’ll bring down the cost of health insurance.

The President was conciliatory:

Over the last two years, we’ve made progress.  But, clearly, too many Americans haven’t felt that progress yet, and they told us that . . .

Read more: Voters have Demanded a Change, Again

After Sipping on a Slurpee, Republican Victory Still Likely

The Republican Leadership

As we go to the polls today, there is the likely outcome, a significant Republican victory, and there is the possibility of the surprise finish, more muted Republican gains.  Times are tough, and people are thus looking for changes in their political representation, but despite this, indeed, because of it, to the end, Obama fought against the apparently inevitable.  In the climax of his fight, he explained his position:

“Around the country I’ve been trying to describe it this way.  Imagine the American economy as a car.   And the Republicans were at the wheel and they drove it into a ditch.  And it’s a steep ditch, it’s a deep ditch.  And somehow they walked away.

But we had to go down there.  So me and all the Democrats, we put on our boots and we repelled down into the ditch.  (Laughter.)  And it was muddy down there and hot.  We’re sweating, pushing on the car.  Feet are slipping.  Bugs are swarming.

We look up and the Republicans are up there, and we call them down, but they say, no, we’re not going to help.  They’re just sipping on a Slurpee — (laughter) — fanning themselves.  They’re saying, you’re not pushing hard enough, you’re not pushing the right way.  But they won’t come down to help.  In fact, they’re kind of kicking dirt down into us, down into the ditch.  (Laughter.)

But that’s okay.  We know what our job is, and we kept on pushing, we kept on pushing, we kept on pushing until finally we’ve got that car on level ground.  (Applause.)  Finally we got the car back on the road. (Applause.)  Finally we got that car pointing in the right direction.  (Applause.)

And suddenly we have this tap on our shoulder, and we look back and who is it?

AUDIENCE:  Republicans.

THE PRESIDENT:  It’s the Republicans.  And they’re saying, excuse me, we’d like the keys back.

AUDIENCE:  No! (link)

D.C. reader, Eric Friedman, reported in a reply to my last post that his son heard these words on the Midway at the University of Chicago and . . .

Read more: After Sipping on a Slurpee, Republican Victory Still Likely