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Obama and the Republicans

Pete Souza/White House
President Barack Obama greeting Speaker of the House John Boehner before delivering the State of the Union address, Washington, D.C., January 25, 2011

President Obama, more popular than he’s been in a long time, is nonetheless negotiating very tricky terrain. But so, too, are the supposedly triumphant Republicans, with their often obstreperous ideologically extremist Tea Party partners. Obama wants to preempt the Republicans on some legislative issues. This is already disappointing or even enraging his most ardent followers, but he’s also making a strenuous effort to win back for 2012 the independents who made his victory possible in 2008 but then voted Republican in 2010.

To accomplish that goal, Obama has ceded the Republicans considerable territory and is arguing on their terms. He has accepted the long-held Republican premises that the government is too big and unwieldy, that regulations can get in the way of jobs, that the huge deficit can be handled by spending reductions without tax increases, and that federal workers (a frequent target of “small government” advocates) must accept a wage freeze (already imposed).

He’s also agreed that spending on domestic programs is such a big part of the problem that it should be frozen for five years, which will mean actual reductions in some of those programs. (His budget was to be submitted February 14.) To make cuts in defense spending and ward off Republican charges that he’s “weak on defense,” he’s hiding behind Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s apron strings, saying in his State of the Union address they are Gates’s proposals. But a very big question is whether the economy is yet on strong enough footing to begin seriously cutting spending. When I ask officials they give the impression that they are going on a wing and a prayer that we won’t slide back into another recession.

In his address Obama wrapped additional federal initiatives—more money for education, infrastructure, and “innovation”—in the term “investments,” which didn’t fool the Republicans for a minute, and they made this clear to the public, the real audience for his speech. Though unemployment was hovering just above 9 percent in January (the unemployment number is considerably higher when one counts those who have given up looking or have had to take part-time jobs), he didn’t dare talk forthrightly about more spending. So he reached back to the oft-used and useful concept of “competitiveness,” to stir up optimism and appeal to that part of the American psyche that wants the US to be the best-educated, most innovative, and most creative nation in the world. And he played on the worry—the fact—that we’re falling behind.

This theme has been used against the Soviet Union, Japan, and now—though Obama didn’t name it—China. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also talked of competitiveness in their State of the Union addresses and so, for that matter, did presidents going back at least as far as Dwight Eisenhower, who used it in response to the shock of the Soviets in 1957 being the first to send a satellite into orbit. That set off an effort to improve America’s adeptness at science, math, and education in the relatively conservative Eisenhower’s National Defense Education Act. Thus, though it didn’t quite fit the circumstances, Obama declared that “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

Obama and his aides had spent months considering how to keep some form of economic stimulus going without using the word stimulus. They had to deck out these efforts in new attire, since the Republicans, with their expertise in repetitive negativism (“Obamacare”), had turned “stimulus” into a term of opprobrium. (They consistently refer to Obama’s “failed stimulus program”; actually, the data show that it boosted GDP by 2.5 to 3.5 percentage points.)

In his speech Obama attempted to avoid the proverbial “laundry list” of new programs—in light of spending restraints, of the expanded Republican ranks in Congress, and a desire to avoid two more years of nearly constant combat. Lacking the votes to win very much from the new Congress, he sought to avoid a big agenda and the Sturm und Drang of the past two years. Instead, he would try to get some things done through laws already on the books (the Republicans are on guard for this) and to fight only those fights he has to. Obama and his aides would like to do more, but have concluded that there are only so many things they must do. They have to extend the continuing resolution that has funded the government for the past several months (since Congress passed no appropriations bills last year, and that runs out on March 4); and the debt ceiling has to be raised sometime later in the spring.

Having got much credit for working with the Republicans in the lame duck session, Obama proposed some issues on which he and his aides thought they might be able to reach agreement with them. The administration has for some time been working with some Republicans on revising the No Child Left Behind education act, widely accused of putting too much reliance on test scores. Another possible area of bipartisan agreement is trade, which Obama specified in his address, singling out for congressional approval the recently negotiated agreement with South Korea. (There’s also another pending with Colombia, but it’s politically more difficult and not expected to result in as much business for US companies.) The White House also figured that despite the Republicans’ attacks on the stimulus program, they show up at ribbon cuttings and might well go along with a proposal for more infrastructure projects. The day after the State of the Union speech, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO put out a joint statement praising the President’s call for more infrastructure.

Obama’s request for a broad immigration reform, apparently appealing to Hispanics and some businesses, is expected to go nowhere now that the coalition behind it no longer includes John McCain, who had given it Republican cover. Obama’s proposal to invest in “clean energy,” such as wind farms and solar heating—giving up on more ambitious energy programs, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax, which he couldn’t get through the last Congress—might not go far either, but it’s a favorite of his friend John Kerry. Obama had to know that his demand that Congress not extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent permanently was an empty gesture, given that he didn’t even have the votes to stop it in the last Congress; but it may have been a sop to the left, or a way to project a lower budget deficit.

In view of the economic realities, at some points during his speech Obama was almost too upbeat, at times almost euphoric. He had been studying how FDR and Ronald Reagan raised public optimism. The essentially thematic nature of his speech—the emphasis on “competitiveness” and “winning the future”—was intended to give the presidency something that several outside advisers had recently told him was needed: a “narrative” that would help people understand his overall purpose.

Following his “shellacking” in the 2010 election, the proud but realistic Obama was more ready than before to listen to outsiders and acknowledged that things were wrong with his White House and the way he’s been conducting his presidency. A group of his allies took the moment to make a collective effort to try to convince him to make important changes. These were people whom he trusted—among them John Kerry (who made a major effort), Dick Durbin, Tom Daschle, DNC Chairman and former Virginia governor Tim Kaine, and Harry Reid—and apparently he listened.

He heard the frequent and valid criticism that he and his White House staff were too “insular.” The list of those who complained—and who had every right to—that they couldn’t get through to anyone in a senior position—was long. He had to make an effort to “reach out” more to people he had neglected, the advisers told him. They criticized the decision-making process of the White House, and even who was and wasn’t invited to White House events. He was asked to pay more attention to business people. He was told point-blank that his presidency had no large meaning, nothing that the public could understand or grab hold of as its driving purpose.

Obama himself expressed frustration that he hadn’t been able to get across his positions, whether to his liberal base or to business. He concluded that he needed a new staff and a new press secretary. One person who talked to Obama during this period told me, “Eventually, through the collective efforts of a lot of folks. Despite all the intransigence, the word got through.”

Obama’s reshuffled staff is designed to bring more order and discipline to the White House. Before, there had been several high-flying figures who, whatever their talents, on occasion went their own way. Also, some observers thought from the start of his presidency that his White House lacked a “grown-up,” someone with solid experience, wisdom, and discipline. It wasn’t terribly helpful to have in Rahm Emanuel an energetic but brash chief of staff who used the f-word with members of Congress and who made much of his toughness.

The choice of William Daley as his new chief of staff had more to do with this obvious gap than with Daley’s background in business, of which much was made by Obama’s liberal supporters; his previous years of government service and politics (he’s a Daley, after all) were ignored. Besides, the President sets the policy. Daley brings to his new job an enormous range of contacts; his word is taken as good. Daley is the long- missing “grown-up” in the Obama White House.

Though the White House staff has been extensively reshuffled, in the end, Obama, who greatly prefers to have around him people he feels comfortable with, has not brought in many fresh faces. In that vein, the widespread idea that Obama has “turned to the center” has been much overstated, a concept encouraged by the White House and aimed at independents: Obama has made some symbolic gestures, such as some of his new appointments, and is being nicer to business, but he was no flaming liberal in his first two years in office. He is the same as before, essentially a somewhat left-of-center pragmatist, and a man who has avoided fixed positions for most of his life. Even his health care proposal—denounced by the right as a “government takeover” and “socialism”—was essentially moderate or centrist. When he cut a deal on the tax bill, announced on December 7, he pragmatically concluded that he did not have the votes to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, and in exchange for giving in on that he got significant concessions from the Republicans, such as a fairly lengthy extension of unemployment insurance and the cut in payroll taxes. Making this deal also left him time to achieve other things—ratification of the START treaty, the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell—before the new and more right-wing Congress came thundering to town.

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