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Obama’s Big and Quiet Transformation

John Boehner; drawing by John Springs

Representative Steve LaTourette of Ohio, a Republican, from his state’s very northeasternmost corner up by Lake Erie and Pennsylvania, is loyal to Speaker John Boehner, his fellow Ohioan, and—by today’s standards—a moderate conservative who has made his disdain for those to his right clear. He’s called members of the Tea Party “knuckle-draggers…that hate taxes.” In December, when the Speaker lacked the votes in his own House Republican caucus to support his “Plan B,” a proposal to limit tax increases sharply, after negotiations with the White House had broken down, LaTourette chalked the failure up to “the same forty, fifty chuckleheads that all year…have screwed this place up.”

First elected in 1994, LaTourette came in with the Gingrich Revolution and was seen as a conservative in that era; but time and fervor have made his views seem a bit quaint—he’s big on transportation and actually appears to support a certain level of taxation to fund it. Back in the summer, he abruptly announced his retirement, specifically deploring his party’s drift toward unreason.

So it was shocking to hear him of all people, on New Year’s Day, after the Senate voted 89–8 to pass compromise legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff, sniff that the bill was passed by “sleep-deprived octogenarians” and that “the Republicans who voted for it must have been drunk” (the bill passed around 2:30 AM on January 1). Washington is not nearly as obsessed with rank and politesse as it was a generation ago, but even in our coarser era, it was astounding to hear a House member speak of senators that way.

The people who were really drunk were the House Republicans, besotted with their idea of themselves as the exterminating angels of public-sector excess, as the protectors of the rich against the “moocher” class. After the lopsided Senate vote, when only five GOP senators voted no, many observers on New Year’s morning expected relatively easy passage of the Senate bill in the House. By early afternoon, though, it was clear that it wouldn’t be easy at all. Eric Cantor, the minority leader, let it get out that he was against the package—a blunt reminder to Boehner that Cantor was ready to lead a revolt against the deal and, possibly, against Boehner himself when the new Congress convened two days later to vote for Speaker.

In the end, of course, pressure was so great—as the afternoon progressed even the anchors on the Fox News channel were saying that if the country went over the cliff, House Republicans would be solely blamed for any resultant turmoil—that Boehner permitted the vote that night. He had, up to that point, abided by the so-called “Hastert Rule,” an unwritten edict dreamed up by House Republicans a decade ago holding that they would permit floor votes only on legislation that had the backing of a majority of the GOP caucus—“a majority of the majority.”

But he broke that rule on New Year’s night, and sure enough, the bill passed with the support of only a little more than one third of the Republicans. (LaTourette, apparently becalmed after getting things off his chest, sobered up and voted yes.) That is, had it been up to House Republicans alone, the bill would have died. Now, the hard-right Republicans will surely be even more incensed than usual as we go forward to the next fights, over the debt limit and the so-called “sequestration” budget cuts of around $1.2 trillion over ten years—and in the first year, 2013, roughly 9 percent across the board to the budgets of the Pentagon and domestic agencies—that Congress agreed to in August 2011.

It may seem as though Washington has seen enough of these showdowns during Obama’s presidency. But these have all been preliminaries. The main event arrives in March, when the statutory limit on government borrowing will have to be raised if the US is not to default on its financial commitments, many of them already voted into law by Congress.

To understand why, look back at how we reached this “cliff” in the first place. It came about because two deadlines hit the government simultaneously. First, the tax cuts made under George W. Bush expired at the end of 2012. Second, lawmakers seeking a broad agreement on the country’s fiscal future decided in 2011 to set the end of 2012 as their deadline for doing so. They concurred that if they failed to agree on a plan by that date, deep across-the-board spending cuts (“sequestration”) would automatically take effect by way of response to annual federal deficits. This would force them to act, so the thinking went. Back in August 2011, New Year’s Day 2013 seemed a long way away.

The larger backdrop for this maneuvering has to do with two underlying factors: the deficit spending undertaken by the Obama administration following the financial meltdown, and the long-standing concern among a bipartisan coterie of establishment figures about paying for entitlements in light of the coming retirement of the baby boomers. The forces of the right, whose real priorities are keeping taxes on the rich as low as possible and helping the poor as little as possible, have opportunistically hopped on the deficit and entitlement bandwagons as it has suited them.

The potential government shutdown of April 2011, the debt-ceiling negotiation of August 2011, the agreement on sequestration, the debates during the recent campaign about taxation and Medicare, and the New Year’s Day drama—all have been part of this larger debate, which will now be fully joined this spring. The Tea Party people want to slash the domestic budget, and numerous powerful forces, such as Pete Peterson’s foundation, have for years agitated to rein in entitlements.

All these factors point toward Republicans taking a much harder line in the spring. Here, it’s important to understand that Republican obstructionism is not merely ideological, although it is certainly that. Few realize that the Republicans have created a perverse political incentive system, which rewards obstruction of administration legislation and punishes cooperation with Democrats.

The story begins with some intensely political gerrymandering of congressional districts undertaken by state legislatures where Republicans took control in the 2010 elections. They drew maps that packed Democratic voters as tightly as possible into one district, while spreading the Republican numerical advantage around to surrounding districts as much as possible. Geoffrey R. Stone, the distinguished legal scholar at the University of Chicago, explained in a simple hypothetical how this worked in The Huffington Post:

To give a simple example, imagine four neighboring congressional districts, two of which are 60 percent Democratic and two of which are 60 percent Republican. One would expect that each party would win two seats in the House. But if the Republican state legislature re-draws the district lines so as to make one district 100 percent Democratic, and the other three districts each 67 percent Republican, then instead of each party winning two representatives, the Republicans will win in three of the four districts.1

Pennsylvania provides a notable example of this. Obama won the state by 5.4 percentage points, and Democrats swept all three statewide offices that were up for election. But Republicans won thirteen out of eighteen House seats. Similar results emerged in Virginia, which Obama carried but where Republicans took eight of eleven House seats, and in Ohio, where Obama prevailed handily but Republicans won twelve of sixteen House seats. Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin followed the pattern—all because Republicans controlled the state houses and drew the lines.

This aggressive district-packing resulted in the great oddity of the 2012 election: Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives outpolled Republicans by around 500,000 votes nationally, and yet the Republicans won 54 percent of the seats. The Democrats did gain eight seats, but they might have gained far more had Democratic voters not been packed into heavily Democratic districts.

The existence of these more partisan congressional districts has obvious ramifications for how politicians behave once in office. If you are a Republican who represents an ideologically heterogeneous district where Obama won around 50 percent of the vote, then obviously you will be more likely to behave in a moderate way. Such a district is also likely to be home to a number of aspiring Democrats, state legislators or others, who could mount a credible challenge against you. As you walk the tunnels from the House office buildings over to the Capitol on your way to vote, you will think about those potential challengers, and the thirty-second attack ads they might air against you for casting a vote out of step with the district’s mores.

But what if you come from a district that isn’t remotely like that? What if you come from a district that is so heavily Republican, and so strongly conservative, that your only pressure comes from the right? That is precisely the kind of district most House Republicans represent today.

We can pick any red state virtually at random and check the numbers. Take Kentucky, which Romney won with nearly 61 percent of the vote. The state has six congressional districts, one of which, based in Louisville, is held by a Democrat. The other five are held by Republicans. In none of those did President Obama receive more than 42 percent of the vote, topping 40 in just one of the five. In Louisiana’s five GOP districts (out of six), Obama failed to exceed 40 percent of the vote in any of the five. In Arizona’s four Republican-controlled districts, Obama did no better than 38.8 percent (he averaged 56.1 percent in the state’s five Democratic districts).

Something similar happened in regions across the country. In the new Congress, just fifteen Republicans out of 233 now represent districts that Obama carried last November. Of the thirteen states where Republican senators will seek reelection in 2014, Obama won just one, Maine. A large majority of Republican senators—thirty-seven out of forty-five—represent red states. And every Republican senator is very mindful of what happened to their ex-colleague Richard Lugar of Indiana last year, when he lost a primary to a Tea Party–backed candidate well to his right. Richard Mourdock went on to lose the general election in Indiana to the Democrat Joe Donnelly; but that’s no comfort to the Republican senators, many of whom represent states with active Tea Party contingents and live in fear of a right-wing primary challenge (as if many of these politicians aren’t extremely conservative themselves).

All this adds up to a political structure within the GOP that rewards obstruction and regards compromise with Obama not as reasonable bargaining with the duly elected president of the United States, but as treachery. The right-wing press—Fox, talk radio, the largest websites—reinforces this pressure daily. It is true that Republicans in the Senate at least came to agreement with Obama to avert going over the cliff. But there is every reason to think that Republicans, having (from their point of view) put off the spending and entitlement fight for the good of the economy, and facing heavy pressure from their base voters to take a stand, will be far less accommodating in March.

Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

And Obama? He strives to be the man in the middle, the voice of reason, the credible “grown-up in the room,” to revive a phrase from his first term that his spinmeisters happily put into storage after the 2011 debt-ceiling fiasco. The deal agreed to on January 1 was characteristic of Obama through and through: disappointing to his own backers in the Washington–New York liberal establishment, many of whom wanted him to take the country over the cliff, where (so it was believed) he’d have had more leverage over the Republicans. But we should know by now that Obama is just not the cliff-diving type.

Obama could have pushed the country over the cliff and forced the GOP to swallow a deal while the financial markets collapsed. After all, the cliff negotiations represented his moment of maximum political capital. In spite of all the money that the Republicans threw at him before the November election, hundreds of millions of loosely regulated dollars, all those false claims about him made by Mitt Romney’s campaign, the president won reelection, and as it turns out won rather handily.2 If it can be said that one claim or position was central to his campaign, it was that he wanted to raise taxes on household dollars earned above $250,000. Romney was equally unambiguous in his opposition to that policy. The American voters made their feelings on the matter clear. In addition to that, he had room to speak the truth now. Unlike most of the politicians dancing along the cliff’s edge, Obama need never face the voters again.

So he could have played roulette, refusing to compromise, but that just isn’t who he is. He doesn’t want to crush the opposition. He’d much rather reason with it and be the president who proved the system could still work as intended. In my view, the deal he struck was not a bad one at all, despite the complaints of some liberals.3 First and foremost, he got a tax increase for the well-to-do. Grover Norquist insisted for technical reasons that Republicans voting for the deal were not in violation of his now famous pledge, but the fact is that high-end tax rates are increasing. The breaking of that line, whether it rests at $250,000 or $450,000, is a very big deal.

Second, to have made it through the cliff deadline without any cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is a victory. Obama put a Social Security benefit cut on the negotiating table in mid-December, in the form of indexing benefits to the so-called “chained consumer price index,” which would reduce monthly checks for those in their eighties and nineties especially. To the great surprise of many, even Nancy Pelosi endorsed this policy. But then negotiations collapsed, and John Boehner endured his humiliation over “Plan B,” so it was moot. But Republicans tried to revive the chained CPI, insisting for a few hours on New Year’s Eve that it be part of any deal, and then backing off after seeing that it would go nowhere.

The extension of unemployment benefits for a year was a big win, especially because Republicans demanded no “offset” in spending cuts to cover its $30 billion cost. This is remarkable because Republicans have always demanded offsets in these situations, citing deficit considerations (it’s always when Democrats are trying to do things for poor people that Republicans suddenly get concerned about the deficit). On the downside, the end of the 2 percent payroll tax holiday takes away the only form of stimulus Obama was able to get Congress to agree to. But because the deal included no language on the debt ceiling, and because it pushed the beginning of the sequestration cuts back just two months, all of these gains could prove ephemeral.

Obama set a hideous precedent in 2011 by agreeing to GOP demands that spending be cut by the same amount Congress would vote to increase the debt limit. In his New Year’s night remarks after the House vote, he took a much sterner line, emphasizing with his concluding point that he won’t negotiate over the debt limit: “While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they’ve passed.” If Congress refuses to raise the debt limit and pay those bills, he said, the consequences could be “catastrophic.”

Obama and other Democrats insist they will not negotiate on the debt limit this time. If they stick to that position, they will force a showdown sometime in March that will be at least political, and maybe constitutional. If the Republicans win, forcing Obama to agree to deep cuts in domestic and entitlement programs in exchange for their votes to raise the debt limit, he may be weakened for the rest of his term—and the economy could well suffer from the austerity such a victory would impose. If the Republicans cave and Obama triumphs, many possibilities open up, potentially.

To think back over Obama’s tenure is to be struck by a paradox that has, I think, little precedent. Obama’s is the most transformational presidency in modern history, but it simply doesn’t feel that way. Recall the famous words he spoke to a Nevada newspaper in January 2008 when he declared that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that…Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Aside from trying to throw then-opponent Hillary Clinton off her stride a bit, Obama clearly meant to be saying that he would be changing history as Reagan did.

His tenure so far hasn’t been much like Reagan’s at all. In large part this is because Reagan’s ascension represented the rise to the very apex of power of a relatively new force, the “movement conservatism” that first sprang to life in the mid-1950s. Before Reagan, that brand of conservatism had been consigned to the barely acceptable fringes of Washington, given voice by a few second-tier legislators (Roman Hruska of Nebraska, for example) and cranky columnists (James J. Kilpatrick). Reagan altered Washington’s chemistry in a vast number of ways, from questions of domestic and foreign policy to seating arrangements in Georgetown society. The many cumulative billions from rich conservatives that helped build conservative think tanks and media outlets such as Fox News started changing the balance of power in Washington as well during Reagan’s term.

Obama has not presided over that kind of political and cultural change, and it’s hard to see how he will. And yet, his record of accomplishments in both the policy and political realms is formidable. He passed near-universal health care and sweeping financial regulation. He ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on military service. He was the first president to endorse same-sex marriage (which I predicted in these pages—wrongly, I’m happy to note—might prove costly at the polls). The night before the election, Rachel Maddow devoted the first ten or so minutes of her MSNBC program to listing Obama’s policy achievements. It was a staggering list.4

The political accomplishments are notable as well. Bear in mind that many conservatives (and not a few liberals) believed that 2008 had to be unique, and that Obama’s aberrational triumph was made possible only by a storm of events that conspired to do in the Republicans—the financial meltdown, John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin, the media’s supposed lionization of Obama, and so on. Surely, conservatives thought, that 2008 coalition was a fluke; America will never reelect a man such as this.

The 2008 coalition, it turned out, was no fluke. If anything, it grew, enabling Obama to become the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to carry more than 50 percent of the vote twice (Bill Clinton didn’t hit 50 either time). Even Karl Rove and Dick Morris will now have to accept that the white vote is aging and shrinking, the white working-class vote is disappearing, and the Latino and African-American voting blocs will both grow steadily. They and their ideological allies will also have to accept what a different country this is from the one they’d wish it to be. When voters in three states pass same-sex marriage referenda, and voters in two other states approve the legal use of recreational marijuana, a cultural switch of some sort has been flipped.

Yet for all that change, the past four years haven’t felt like a change in historical direction. It doesn’t feel like transformation because every single victory has been so hard won, so emotionally exhausting, and in some cases so compromised that it becomes difficult to imagine them as pieces of a vast puzzle that is changing the course of history. The health bill left many liberals unhappy, and Dodd-Frank, say most experts, will not prevent another financial meltdown.

But it could be that this is what transformation often feels like. Perhaps this is what the New Deal felt like; after all, liberals were constantly frustrated with Roosevelt in precisely the same ways today’s liberals wish more from Obama. Shortly into his second term, Roosevelt riled the left by wholeheartedly embracing deficit reduction. Obama has only halfheartedly embraced it, which is progress.

Gun control, immigration, and climate change are the remaining big domestic items on the president’s agenda. The clock ticks. Since the incumbent president’s party rarely gains seats in the sixth year of that president’s term, he may have only two years, not four, to try to tackle these issues. With the possible exception of immigration, he could well be stymied on every one of those. The debt-and-spending fight represents his best opportunity to overpower the Republicans and become the kind of president he wants to become. But he’ll have to develop more taste for combat than compromise.

  1. 1

    Geoffrey R. Stone, “Why Did the Republicans Win the House?,” The Huffington Post, November 10, 2012. 

  2. 2

    In addition to Obama’s 332–206 electoral college wipeout, his popular vote margin has been steadily increasing as states complete their official canvasses. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report has been tracking this. Obama’s margin has increased from 2.3 percent (50.4 percent to 48.1 percent) to 3.8 percent (51 percent to 47.2 percent), in part because so many ballots of Obama voters were challenged. The irony of Romney finishing at 47 percent has not been lost on those who recall his night at Boca Raton. 

  3. 3

    The Huffington Post homepage on New Year’s morning, after the Senate vote, reflected this view, including the phrases: “So Long, Leverage”; “Did O Blow It?”; “Worst of All Worlds”; “Bargained Incompetently”; and a critical quote from Paul Krugman. 

  4. 4

    Google “Rachel Maddow Obama accomplishments November 5” and you will be led to the relevant video excerpts. 

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