Opinion

The Great Debate

For Obama’s second Inaugural, skip the poetry

President Barack Obama should hope that old adage, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” isn’t true. In his second Inaugural Address Monday, he has a chance to sharpen his arguments and move the nation in a way that eluded him the first time around.

Instead of a soggy sermon about political maturity, Obama should offer a ripping defense of his vision of government and its role in the economy. He has nothing to fear but controversy itself.

Obama faces a low bar. Facing history, presidents often choke. They know that these talks are among the only ones sure to be collected in a book or chiseled on the wall of their presidential library. The genre tends toward the ponderous.

We remember the Inaugural Addresses that marked a bold departure, a president arriving amid crisis. Thomas Jefferson in 1801 – after the nation’s first contested election – declaring, “We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans.” Abraham Lincoln, in 1861, pleading for the South to remain in the Union, and vowing to repress rebellion by force until “the better angels of our nature” returned. Franklin D. Roosevelt declaring “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” referring to the bank panics that imperiled the nation.

Only John F. Kennedy’s thrilling Cold War call to arms is remembered for sheer eloquence, rather than the crisis it addressed. Though its militance helped create plenty of crises within a few years.

Boehner resurrects the antebellum South

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is now in Williamsburg, Virginia, meeting with his House Republican conference at their annual retreat. The GOP House members have likely gotten over the initial shock of the November elections – in which President Barack Obama won more than 51 percent of the vote and the Democratic majority swelled in the Senate.

Though the Republicans lost House seats and their candidates collected more than a million fewer votes than their Democratic rivals, the GOP retained a majority in the House of Representatives. This consolation prize has allowed Boehner to claim that House Republicans have a mandate every bit as compelling as that earned by the president. Conservative champions Grover Norquist and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) echoed this claim.

“It’s very wrong to suggest that only the president has a mandate,” asserted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who knows from congressional mandates. “The House Republicans also have a mandate, and it’s a much more conservative mandate than the president’s.”

When political compromise is suspect

The odds are that the extremely close national election wasn’t close at all in the place where you live.

And that’s a problem.

For the past four decades, Americans have been self-segregating into communities where they are increasingly likely to vote with their neighbors in overwhelming majorities. In 1976, only a quarter of voters lived in a county where either Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford won by 20 points or more. By 2008, 46.7 percent of voters lived in one of these landslide counties.

This year, the national margins narrowed still further. But more than half of all voters (52 percent) lived in a county where either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney won by 20 percentage points or more.

Class war in the new Gilded Age

2012 was the first class-warfare election of our new Gilded Age. The first since the middle class has come to understand, in the words of new Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), that the “rules are rigged against it.” Business-as-usual may no longer be acceptable.

But Washington didn’t get the memo. Even as ballots were still being counted in Palm Beach, Florida, the two parties lurched into the fierce debate over the fiscal cliff, the noxious brew of automatic spending cuts and expiring tax cuts that would poison the recovery. The debate, a dismal sequel to the 2011 debt ceiling melodrama, focuses on deficits not jobs. Once more, Republicans are threatening to blow up the recovery unless Democrats make otherwise unacceptable concessions. Once more, President Barack Obama looks for a “grand bargain,” seeking bipartisan support for terms divorced from opinion outside the beltway. Once more, what Scott Galupo at The American Conservative called the “clown show” of the House Republican caucus blows itself up.

Republicans are the most clueless about this new reality. The election’s one clear mandate, confirmed in polls ever since, was for Obama’s oft-repeated pledge to let the Bush tax cuts expire on those earning more than $250,000. Yet, House Republicans stood staunch in defense of the very rich – refusing to pass their own speaker’s bill to extend the tax breaks on everyone except millionaires.

Fiscal cliff: D.C.’s Mayan apocalypse

We are careening toward Dec. 21, 2012, the date of the Mayan apocalypse, when the world is supposed to come to an end through a series of cataclysmic upheavals, according to assorted astrologers and mystics ‑ though not the Mayans themselves, who said it was merely the end of their calendar. We are also hurtling toward the Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff,” when the American economy could re-enter a devastating recession ‑ a man-made mini-apocalypse.

What has motivated people, across so many civilizations and centuries, to devise and believe in an apocalypse? Understanding this might help us address the ideological gridlock now propelling Republicans and Democrats toward this fiscal “end of days.”

There have always been groups who believe in a coming apocalypse, suggesting this is inherent in human nature. People who experience life as traumatic, devastating or chaotic are prone to project such nihilistic visions onto the world at large. Anxiety about one’s own death can also evoke a catastrophic apprehension about the end of the entire world.

How Obama seized the narrative

Barack Obama may finally be defining himself as president. The question is: What took him so long to seize the narrative and find his character as “leader.”

Obama now has strong public support in the fiscal crisis faceoff. Even as the House Republicans scramble to find a way into the argument, the president has a tight grip on the storyline.

This is a big change from the fierce healthcare reform fight and the 2011 debt limit crisis. The chattering class then continually asserted that Obama had “lost control of the narrative.”

Can Congress pull back from the brink?

Americans want to see Congress and the president make a deal on the “fiscal cliff,” that noxious mix of expiring tax cuts and mandatory spending slashing due at year’s end. They just don’t think it will happen without a lot of pain, according to recent polls.

But if Washington leaders don’t reach an agreement, which looks more than possible, it will be for a good reason: Incentives are strongest for policymakers to act only after the cliff has come and gone ‑ and wreaked a great deal of havoc in the process.

So far, the fiscal cliff looks like the Y2K of 2012. It’s an eventuality that requires a great deal of preparation and occupies politicians and the chattering classes but which has yet to produce the visible scars of crushed 401(k) statements, widespread layoffs or television graphics about a plunging Dow.

Policy debates in the Internet Age

Technology is changing how power struggles are waged between the White House and Congress. For the last few years, negotiations between Democratic and Republican leaders have too often led to stalemate. The battle over how to avert the “fiscal cliff” is the latest example.

Since President Barack Obama’s reelection, he has begun to shift strategies — taking his case directly to the American people as a way to pressure Congress. After all, members of Congress ignore their president without penalty, but ignoring the opinions of their constituents can cost them their jobs.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both effectively used television to address the nation when facing off against a House of Representatives controlled by the opposing party. While TV will remain important, going directly to the American people continue to morph in the era of the Internet. Political messages can be customized and narrowly targeted.

Why Congress can’t deliberate

The new Congress next year will likely inherit high-stakes standoffs over many complicated issues, from financial credibility to immigration. Our elected leaders must be able to make difficult trade-offs and craft policies that reflect the best expert knowledge.

In its current dysfunctional state, however, Congress cannot have nuanced deliberations or make knowledgeable judgments. One big reason is that it no longer has the capacity to produce unbiased public-interest information.

In the mid-1990s the mechanisms that produced the information and statistics that Congress had relied on to produce bills were virtually disassembled. Under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, many support panels that supplied information and analysis to Congress members were disbanded or curtailed.

Fighting the filibuster

President Barack Obama recently said Congress should “seize the moment” and summon a majority to push immigration reform. There is only one problem – Congress already did that.

Majorities in the House and Senate backed the DREAM Act, a bill creating a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children, during Obama’s first term. The bill died, however, when a minority of Republicans filibustered it. So even if a new immigration majority materializes next year, Republicans can just filibuster again. Unless Erika Andiola gets her way.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is due to hear arguments  Dec. 10 in Andiola’s case – an ambitious and erudite lawsuit from Common Cause – which argues that a small band of senators have turned the filibuster into an unconstitutional assault on our democratic government.

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