The official photo by White House photographer Pete Souza of President Obama signing the debt ceiling increase says it all. Alone at his desk, the president looks down at the paper with a maddening stare. Two boxes of ceremonial pens are lined up neatly in front of him. In the background, where so many have stood so many times proudly waiting for their souvenir of a grand achievement, there is no one.
“Victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan,” John F. Kennedy said. And now President Obama knows what he meant.
Congratulations on a Raw Deal
Over in the Senate, what passes for leadership in Congress was busy patting themselves on the back for the compromise they struck to avert the debt crisis. “I want to thank my friend the majority leader for his work in getting this agreement over the finish line,” Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell said of Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid. To which Reid responded, “I appreciate the kind words that my counterpart, Mr. McConnell, has stated on the floor. I appreciate my friend the Republican leader putting his arms around this idea I came up with.”
In the House, Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi had to bite her lip in casting a reluctant vote for the debt ceiling deal. But House Speaker John Boehner and his sidekick Eric Cantor, who’d just walked the country to the brink of economic disaster, could hardly contain their glee. “I got 98 percent of what I wanted; I’m pretty happy,” Boehner told CBS News.
He Saw It Coming
In the solitude of the oval office, the president had to know he’d been rolled. It’s fair to say his vision of politics, cerebral as it is at times, is wide enough that he saw this day coming, maybe as early as the day after the 2010 midterm elections when he acknowledge to reporters he’d taken “a shellacking.” With 87 new Tea Party freshmen in the fold, Republicans took back control of the House and cut the Democratic majority in the Senate to 53 – seven votes short of a filibuster-proof 60.
“In the rush of activity, sometime we lose track of the ways that we connected with the folks that got us here in the first place,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “This is a growth process and an evolution. And the relationship I’ve had with the American people is one that built slowly, peaked at this incredible high, and then during the course of this last two years, as we’ve together gone through incredible times, has gotten rockier and tougher –– and I’m sure we will have more ups and downs during the course of my being in this office.”
A Year on The Defensive
Before the new Congress was even installed, Obama signed off on a deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts. He framed the $859 billion package as more economic stimulus. (It also included payroll tax reductions, tuition credits and an extension of unemployment benefits to 99 weeks.) Republicans had insisted that unless all the cuts were extended, including those for people earning over $250,000, nothing would ever get out of the Senate, so Obama reneged on his pledge to let the cuts on the rich lapse in order to let middle class taxpayers keep an estimated $3,000 a year.
Progressive Democrats in Congress were not happy. Obama reassured them. “That’s the nature of compromise,” he said, “yielding on something each of us cares about to move forward on what all of us care about. And right now, what all of us care about is growing the American economy and creating jobs for the American people.”
The new House speaker saw it differently. “It’s a good first step,” Boehner said. “If we want to begin . . . creating jobs, we need to end the job-killing spending binges.” He did not explain how not collecting $858 billion in taxes translated into less spending––or did anything but increase the budget deficit.
The second step on the Republican agenda was to cut the 2011 federal budget. Because the previous Congress did not finalize its budget, the new Congress had a shot at revising spending for the last six months of the year. Boehner and his nascent coalition of rebellious Tea Party freshmen immediately called for a $74 billion reduction, or they would shut down government operations.
With only a few days remaining before the April deadline, Obama negotiated the Republican cuts down to $38 billion. (In the fine print, it amounted to a little under $13 billion). The general consensus was that the Democrats had proven the more astute negotiator, but the President’s official take again was that all parties had come together for the greater good.
“Last night, President Obama announced that the federal government will remain open for business because Americans from different beliefs came together, put politics aside, and met the expectations of the American people,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer wrote in his blog.
After outlining all the Obama initiatives that were saved from the chopping block, Pfeiffer dubbed the agreement “a perfect example of Democrats and Republicans coming together, working tirelessly to hammer out a deal and making the tough choices to live within our means.”
“Not a Chance”
Overhanging the budget debate was the fact that American was pushing up against a $14.3 trillion Congressional limit on borrowing. Lower revenues, two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, an unfunded prescription drug benefit, stimulus spending and fast growing entitlement programs all would raise the government’s borrowing needs to $17 trillion by the end of Obama’s first term, according to Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner. (They were just under $12 trillion when he took office.)
Geithner said the date when the borrowing limit would be reached was May 16 (later revised to August 2) and he warned of catastrophic consequences if America defaulted on its bond obligations. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress that not increasing the ceiling might create a “cascading series of financial collapses” that would endanger the whole global recovery. Obama, for his part, said he hoped Congress would pass a clean extension of the debt ceiling and leave the political wrangling for debates later in the year over the 2012 budget.
“Not a chance,” Boehner told an audience of Republicans. “And I can tell you this: there will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it.” House Republicans were sending the President a ransom note: they had the creditworthiness of the country in their hands, and they weren’t giving it up without a fight.
The Futility of Compromise
Before he put the pen to paper, Obama must have thought about how many times he had tried going down the compromise road––and how little he had to show for it.
If he were honest with himself, he would acknowledge the Democrats had been a bit high-handed themselves in the first two years of his administration. His chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Nancy Pelosi in the House played hardball rounding up votes for his early agenda. But the President at least listened to opposition arguments, scaled back some stimulus proposals, and gave Congressional leaders wide leeway to modify his signature health reform bill, much to his chagrin and, many liberals say, its effectiveness.
He’d come to the White House on a promise to change the culture in Washington. His focus on the campaign trail had been the debilitating influence of money on the political system and lobbyists who used their access to ply the corridors of the Capitol on behalf of special interests. But the problem was much more pervasive. It was Congress itself. Representatives gerrymandered into safe districts of like-minded constituents; senators schooled in the art of obfuscation. Congress was in gridlock, because it was easier to pander to your base than to act.
Meaningless votes on the floor interspersed with sound bite appearances on cable news, informed by the latest pop poll sampling of public opinion, reduced to 30-second advocacy commercials (and now 140-character twitter feeds) were now the norm. More than once, Obama wondered whether everyone in Washington had lost the ability to listen, to discuss, and to compromise.
A Confounding Opponent
When it came to public policy, Obama opted for the Socratic method. He was trained in the art of teasing out conflicting views to find the threads of consensus. His ability to draw out opinions from people in the room, to ask pertinent questions, to sleep on decisions and pull together compromises in difficult circumstances is well known. But Obama never found the key to unlocking Boehner’s brain, not on the golf course, in late night phone calls, secret meetings or lofty discussions of a “grand bargain.” Because Boehner is nothing like Obama.
The Republican leader doesn’t live in the world of tangible ideas like Obama, he lives in the world of ideology (like Ayn Rand). And bonhomie. The strength of the Republicans in the House is that they are a homogenous group, with a narrow but uniform view of what America is–and should be. The House Republicans are Boehner’s band of brothers, united in the single mission of “smaller government” and while he is comfortable assuring the Tea Party faction he has their back, he also has no trouble demanding in return that they “get their asses in line” behind him.
In the debt ceiling debate, he was Patton driving his platoon of tanks to Berlin, not Eisenhower strategically planning how to reconstruct Europe after the Nazis fall (and Obama was some far off President Roosevelt just gumming up the works).
If Obama didn’t know it at the beginning of 2011, he knows it now: There is no way to compromise with Boehner because he doesn’t know what Obama has known instinctively all his life. He doesn’t know how to balance the competing interests of people who are not like him.
Not That It Matters
Looking at the debt deal he was about to sign, Obama knew that it was not as bad as it looked (and he felt). Yes, the headlines would be grim. $914 billion in cuts now, but only $21 billion out of this year’s $3.7 trillion budget. Another $1.1 trillion in deficit reduction––spending cuts and/or revenue increases––to be determined by a “Super Committee” made up of six Republicans and six Democrats. If they cannot agree, “triggers” will bring on another $1 trillion in cuts, but not before the 2013 budget year.
Yes, the debt ceiling will rise in stages (as McConnell wanted) and Tea Party zealots will get their Congressional vote on the balanced budget amendment (and fail). But the ceiling will rise. And there will be time for the whole of his first term programs to play themselves out. The economy will not be as good as anyone would wish, but that will no longer be his burden to bear alone.
The Race is On
On the campaign trail, he will have 15 month to expound on the broken system in Washington––and people will listen. His approval rating may have dropped to 42 percent in recent weeks, but Congress is bobbing along the bottom of the chart at 14. (And the Tea Party, once supported by 40 percent of the public, is down to 20.)
The Republicans have yet to cast the first vote for their 2012 standard-bearer, but whoever it is will have Congressional Republicans hanging around his neck like an albatross. Harry Truman’s comeback win after a fight with Congress comes to mind as a model for Obama’s next campaign. And he doesn’t need to compromise with them any more, or even try. They emptied the chamber in their last round of Russian roulette.
That angry look is Obama summoning up his inner Harry Truman. So let it be said the 2012 presidential race started here, in a room full of adults, after Congressional Republicans needlessly drove the economic recovery into a ditch.
“Give ‘em hell, Barack!”