Obama’s political options
Fiscal crisis? What fiscal crisis? The stock market is up, unemployment is down and the deficit is shrinking.
The fiscal crisis is in Washington, and it’s a crisis of Washington’s own devising. All those deadlines! January 1: the fiscal cliff. March 1: sequesters. March 27: a possible government shutdown. Sometime in August: the debt ceiling, again.
The unending fiscal crisis could take up the entire year. President Barack Obama desperately wants to end it. For one thing, more spending cuts could bring on a recession. For another, an unending fiscal crisis would monopolize the agenda. No time for Congress to take up immigration reform or gun control or the minimum wage or preschool education.
What can Obama do? Here are the options:
1. The permanent campaign
Beginning in mid-February, the president tried to rally the public against the impending sequesters. He barnstormed the country, warning of the consequences and imploring voters to pressure Congress to resolve the impasse.
It didn’t work. Most voters had no idea what a sequester was. The cuts are not happening all at once, like a government shutdown. The public is also OK with across-the-board spending cuts (by a 2-to-1 margin in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll). Just don’t cut any specific programs.
When the outside option failed, Obama switched gears and went for the inside option. He’s been turning on the charm, wining and dining members of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) remarked, “After being in office for four years, he’s actually going to try to talk to members. … I hope something will come out of it.”
The problem is that Obama is not a people person like President Bill Clinton. When Clinton talks to you, it’s like you’re the only person in the world. Obama is aloof. He’s at his best addressing throngs, using a teleprompter. One Democratic congressional staffer told the New York Times that Obama seems to view relations with lawmakers “as a chore, not an opportunity.”
3. Wheel and deal
If you saw the movie Lincoln, you got a sense of how things used to get done in Washington. “I am president of the United States of America,” the movie’s Abraham Lincoln says to his shady operatives, “clothed in immense power! You will procure me those votes!”
They do. Representative Thaddeus Stevens describes the 13th Amendment as “passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
Ever see the famous series of photographs showing Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson as he works over Rhode Island Senator Theodore Green? Note: The last photo is the famous one.
Obama is not Johnson. Or Lincoln. Down and dirty is not his style.
4. Just wait till 2014
“What I can’t do is force Congress to do the right thing,” Obama said this month. “The American people may have the capacity to do that.”
Immediately after giving his victory speech in November, the Washington Post reported, the president walked off the stage in Chicago and telephoned two Democratic congressional leaders. He offered to support their campaign to retake control of the House in 2014. If the opposition party in Congress won’t go along with you, beat their brains out.
The problem with 2014 option is that it so rarely works. Since 1934. there have only been two midterm elections in which the president’s party has gained House seats: 1998, when Clinton was facing impeachment, and in 2002, the first election after 9/11. Those were both, to say the least, exceptional circumstances.
Moreover, Republican seats have gotten safer as a result of the 2010 redistricting (controlled by the GOP in most states) and growing political segregation (the tendency for people to live among others who vote the same way).
It would take an earthquake for Republicans to lose the House in 2014. Earthquakes do happen. But they are hard to engineer.
5. Game changer
Unexpected events happen. Often tragic events. And they can change everything.
Democrats thought they had President George W. Bush cornered in budget negotiations on September 10, 2001. The next day, Bush’s presidency was transformed.
On April 18, 1995, a few months after the Republican takeover of Congress, Clinton was reduced to arguing that “the president is relevant.” The very next day, the bombing in Oklahoma City proved how relevant he was.
Obama may have been counting on the Sandy Hook school shootings to change everything in his second term. So far, that hasn’t happened.
In politics, you have to expect the unexpected. But you can’t rely on it.
6. Grand bargain
The talk in Washington now is about crisis fatigue and the desire of both sides to strike a grand bargain on fiscal issues.
We know what the grand bargain would look like. Republicans would agree to close tax loopholes and limit deductions – and call it tax reform rather than a tax hike. Democrats would agree to allow means-testing for Medicare and change the formula for Social Security cost-of-living increases – and call it entitlement reform rather than a spending cut.
All this would be worked out behind closed doors in Washington and announced as a triumph of reasonableness. The problem is that Americans don’t go for tax hikes and entitlements are the most popular federal programs, watched over by influential interest groups like AARP. The American public may feel screwed.
People will demand to know: Why is Washington doing this behind our backs? Washington’s answer: Because of the fiscal crisis.
The people’s reply: What fiscal crisis?
PHOTO (Top): President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House in Washington, March 4, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed
PHOTO (Insert A): President Barack Obama stands beside House Speaker John Boehner at the unveiling of a statue in honor of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed
PHOTO (Insert B): President Lyndon B. Johnson laughs with Abe Fortas at the White House on July, 29, 1965. Johnson nominated him to be a Supreme Court justice that year, and he took his seat on the bench in early October. LYNDON B. JOHNSON PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY