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Obama and the House Radicals

Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Representative Paul Ryan speaking during a news conference at the US Capitol, Washington, D.C., April 5, 2011.

As is his custom, President Obama erred on the side of caution in confronting this country’s grave fiscal crisis. On Wednesday he gave a good speech far too late. What if he hadn’t been so dilatory on a subject he inevitably would have to confront?

Consider this picture: in early 2010, the Tea Party was a mere specter, not yet a full-blown movement, much less an election victor, and it was unimaginable that it would, in effect, seize control of one body of the Congress. Even if Obama had addressed the fiscal crisis at the outset of this year, rather than deliver a wan and cautious State of the Union address, he would have set the predicate for the current budget battle rather than leaving an opening for Paul Ryan’s radical (and somewhat nonsensical) proposal to fill the vacuum. In essence, Ryan’s plan would change Medicare and Medicaid almost beyond recognition and sharply lower tax rates for the wealthiest individuals and for corporations. It relies on strange assumptions, such as 2.8 percent unemployment by 2021, and it appears to come nowhere near his claimed savings of $1.6 trillion. Ordinarily, such a proposal would have been laughed out of town, but now it’s been transformed into respectability.

The possibility of a bipartisan “Grand Bargain” has grown dimmer, given the lines that have now been drawn, and the Republicans’ perhaps inevitable hyperbole about the President’s speech, which they denounced as “partisan” (Heavens!) and a campaign gimmick. They could not entertain the possibility that Obama’s was a serious, thoughtful offering. The House’s adoption Thursday of the deal made between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner last Friday offers a glimmer of a possibility of compromise on much larger issues, but if the past is prologue, they would be compromises essentially on Republican terms.

For Obama, this struggle has always been about two things. Politically, he has to show that he is more fiscally responsible than his Republican opponents. He also has to get results that are substantively sound. The two issues he must now grapple with are drastically reducing the size of the huge annual deficits (the difference between spending and revenues in any given fiscal year), officially projected this year to reach a staggering, once inconceivable $1.5 trillion. His second challenge is to persuade the Congress to raise the limit (the so-called debt ceiling) on the national debt, now estimated to be over $14 trillion, nearly rivaling the nation’s GDP. The limit is now predicted to be reached in mid-May (though the deadline is fluid because the Treasury can employ tricks for a while to keep the government liquid).

The Republicans have threatened to oppose raising the limit unless “structural” changes are made to the government’s budget, so it’s possible that the two issues will in effect be combined. Catastrophic effects have been predicted if the nation were to default on the national debt, which is no longer entirely out of question. The difficulty is that a vote against raising the debt ceiling is a cheap way to purchase political protection and to make a point—even Senator Barack Obama of Illinois voted against doing so in 2006. And the radicals who control the House seem willing to let the nation go into default in order to get across their message.

This long battle raises big questions: one is who we really are, what we want the relationship between the government and the people to be, and whether in the current political circumstances, this country can be governed in any rational way.

The last-hour deal Obama reached with Boehner on April 8, to cut domestic spending for this fiscal year by $39 billion, was a worse defeat—nearly an abject failure—for the President than was generally understood (which suggests that he hasn’t lost his political skills). When that $39 billion worth of cuts was added to the $40 billion he had already conceded without a fight earlier in the year, it amounted to a total of $80 billion in cuts below his own original proposal for this year’s budget. This was eighty percent of the way toward the $102 billion in cuts that the Tea Party-dominated House had proposed in February.

But the fact that such a huge fight occurred over spending for a mere twelve percent of the federal budget for just the remaining six months of this fiscal year was absurd. It was a situation made for political drama (and hoked-up television), since if an agreement hadn’t been reached by midnight, the federal government would have had to shut down. The fight over this spending bill was the budgetary Spanish Civil War: both sides were testing their skills and their weapons—and each other.

This relatively minor skirmish, in comparison to the ones that were to come, was nevertheless revealing about how Obama handles his role in shaping domestic policy with a divided Congress, one chamber dominated by conservative true believers. Tea Party members and other freshmen elected with its strong backing, were originally written off (and laughed at) as political amateurs, but, with the help of senior colleagues who joined up with them out of shared beliefs or opportunism, they ended up dominating the new Congress’s agenda, partly by default on Obama’s part. The Tea Party turned out to be a formidable political force because they are amateurs, inflexible and uncompromising.

The President tried to portray his near-rout as a success by employing theater—he stood in front of a window through which the viewing audience could see the Washington Monument, now kept open as the result of a deal having been reached—and extolled the agreement as “the biggest annual spending cut in history,” This wasn’t the sort of “victory” his most passionate supporters had expected when they elected him. The rapidity with which Obama took ownership of a budget deal that was so clearly a major coup for Boehner and the Tea Party gave him a chameleon-like aspect.

In some ways, Obama and the partisan but pragmatic Boehner, neither of whom wanted a government shutdown, are up against the same forces. According to Vin Weber, a former House member and now a prominent and well-wired lobbyist, most of the House Republicans are conservative, with about two-thirds of them belonging to the conservative Republican Study Committee chaired by Jim Jordan, a third-term congressman from Urbana, Ohio. Weber said, “These folks are conservatives across the board and want to win on both social and fiscal issues. But the majority cared more about fiscal issues, as has always been the case in the Congress.” In the fight over the spending bill, Weber told me, “I think it’s true that most junior members care more about spending and a handful of members insist on getting some victory on social issues.” Boehner had to contend with, and pacify, both factions.

While the fiscal conservatives were demanding large spending cuts, the smaller group of social conservatives, led by Jim Jordan, was focused on cutting off federal funding of Planned Parenthood. Though the long-ago adopted Hyde amendment forbids the use of federal funds to pay for abortions, the pro-life forces are constantly on patrol against any possible ways of getting around the ban. (The fact that abortions account for just 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s care, which focuses mainly on reproductive health issues among lower income women, and are set apart, often in another building, and are paid for by private funds, was of no interest to the pro-life forces, who also, contradictorily, opposed birth control—which was their real target this time.)

But Boehner no doubt understood that the fight over the funding of Planned Parenthood would not hold up as a rationale for closing down the government. In the end, he dropped the defunding of Planned Parenthood in exchange for another couple of billion dollars in cuts. The pro-lifers did win a provision in the final agreement that restricted the District of Columbia—the one place it could reach into and despite hard-won home rule in 1973, still treats essentially as its plantation—from using taxpayer funds to pay for abortions. Thus they sought to punish defenseless poor women—because they could. (And Obama went along.) According to Weber, the majority of members on both sides would prefer not to take on the highly contentious abortion issue, so the outside groups that feel strongly about it rely on a small clutch of members. And the leaders don’t want to alienate such an intense and vocal part of the Republican base. In any case, the Republican effort to defund Planned Parenthood is likely to recur again and again as the budget battle continues. These forces don’t give up easily.

Though they are feeling triumphant, the Republicans are running a real risk by catering to their base—and in many cases trying avoid primary challenges from the right next year. The astute political analyst Charlie Cook, who was the first to call attention to the Republican wave of 2010, warned in a recent column in the National Journal that the Republicans are misreading their mandate—a not uncommon tendency of both parties in the euphoria of victory. The conservative base and the Tea Partiers may want “to take a meat axe to the government,” Cook wrote, adding, “It would be a blunder, however, to think that such views drove the election.” The Republicans won in 2010, Cook argues, essentially because independents and swing voters wanted to punish the Democrats for the state of the economy, and (Republicans: take note) because they feared that their Medicare benefits would be reduced. The Democrats won in 2008, Cook argues, because those same groups wanted to punish Republicans for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, and party members’ personal scandals.

Moreover, despite the Republicans insistent claim that they were sent to Washington to “cut government spending,” a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll taken in mid-October 2010 revealed that people selected “job creation and economic growth” over “the deficit and government spending” by a substantial margin as the most important issue in the following month’s election.

But if the Democrats lull themselves into thinking they can just sit back while the Republicans destroy their own reelection chances, they could awaken some day to find that there has been an abrupt reversal of the direction that, with a few brief interludes, this country has been going in since the l930s, and an upending of longstanding assumptions about the relationship of the state and individuals.

So, with the House in the hands of the beyond-radical, almost nihilistic, right, and the Senate Democrats cautious and concerned that they could well lose control of the chamber in the 2010 elections, that left the President. One odd feature of the Obama presidency is the frequency with which his aides offer explanations of why the President handled an issue this way or that. I know of no precedent for this. Each time, the explanation is intended to portray a solid belief on Obama’s part that this is the right way to govern, a fixed point on the compass, but the compass needle keeps swinging about. Early in his presidency, aides said that Obama wanted to travel the country, that he wasn’t sent to Washington to get involved in the nitty-gritty legislative process—which is usually taken as a given in the role of a President.

But during the past couple of weeks they explained that Obama had been standing aside from the congressional budget fight because “the public” prefers to see the President as a compromiser. Obama’s aides also gave, perhaps unintentionally, a raw political reason for why the President stood aside so long: they said that his poll numbers had dropped after the health care bill was passed last year because, they said, the public saw him as too involved in the legislative struggle. Perhaps; but for one thing the President wasn’t all that involved, and for another it’s also possible that his poll numbers went down because, inexplicably, the White House lost the war over the definition of one of the greatest social advances in fifty years.

In any case, it didn’t necessarily follow that a President should stand on the sidelines while Congress determines how much money should be spent on federal programs, or which ones should be killed—a fateful set of decisions, affecting every citizen’s life. There may have been little Obama could do to fend off the $61 billion in spending cuts adopted by the House. (Since Boehner couldn’t get enough Republican support for it—notably, fifty nine conservative Republicans voted against the deal because it didn’t go far enough—it was salvaged by Democrats. It was, after all, their President’s deal as well.) But he could have been a voice, setting the direction for the Democrats in Congress, who were knew which way he’d go.

But then, after coming under considerable criticism for failing to lead, Obama suddenly reversed course following the April 8 deal, and the White House announced that he would give a major speech in the coming week. So on Wednesday at George Washington University, he called for Republicans and Democrats to join in trying to reach an agreement on a broad plan that would include savings in entitlement programs, and tax increases on the wealthiest taxpayers (contrary to the extension of Bush tax cuts he had agreed to in the lame duck session), and also cuts in defense spending.

Oddly, it wasn’t until four days later that it was made known what the negotiators had agreed to. (As it happens, a Congressional Budget Office report now said that because the proposal contained so many gimmicks, mainly counting money that the government wasn’t going to spend anyway, the actual amount cut was—get ready—$352 million.) This makes one wonder how much of a deal Boehner and the Democrats had actually made. Inevitably, Democrats howled at cuts in programs dear to them, and Republicans carried on that the cuts hadn’t gone far enough. But because the subject of the fight was domestic discretionary programs—programs that largely help the middle class and the poor—that was where the cuts were going to be made. In the end, about half the cuts hit education, health, and labor programs, as well as job-producing programs such as building highways and high-speed rail.

Obama should be in a better political position as he enters into the upcoming negotiations about the debt ceiling than he was when he negotiated the April 8 agreement: since that didn’t go so well for him, he should have learned some lessons. He could begin with correcting an odd tendency, displayed throughout his presidency, to make premature concessions, perhaps to appear “reasonable”—he must have learned by now that an opponent simply pockets the concession and keeps demanding more. But the Republicans’ proposal to in effect destroy Medicare is always a very unpopular idea. Republicans seem to have a tin ear about entitlement programs. (George W. Bush’s proposal to partially privatize Social Security went nowhere fast.)

Still, the Democrats now have to deal with the fact that the Ryan proposal, which the House was expected to pass on Friday afternoon, will be on the table as the only serious alternative to the President’s proposal—unless a bipartisan deal comes to Obama’s and the Democrats’ rescue.

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