Opinion | Presidency shows signs of life, Obama attempts to reach out to both parties
Published: Monday, March 18, 2013
Updated: Monday, March 18, 2013 23:03
Count me among the ranks of the Pollyanna’s on President Obama’s recent “charm offensive” (as the mainstream media, as only they can, oh so artfully dubbed the president’s latest and most robust round of outreach on the Hill).
It’s a well-known fact that President Barack Obama has a strong distaste for legislating. This is not to say he dislikes the results—it’s all liberals of his ilk preen about—but the hard work it takes to get a bill through the legislature is a little below our public intellectual president.
That’s why his attempts to reach out to his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in recent weeks have been a shock, and are cause for optimism.
It’s true that one senior White House official told National Journal’s Ron Fournier, “This is a joke. We’re wasting the president’s time and ours. I hope you all [in the media] are happy because we’re doing it for you.”
But this statement is teaming with the cynicism of a tired presidency, and more specifically, the cynicism of an aide who’s pulled a few too many 16-hour days with too few tangible legislative achievements to justify his devotion.
And it’s also true that some legislators don’t seem to care much about the president’s outreach. Too little too late is a fair reaction to a president who, after five years in the world’s biggest job, continues to constantly disrespect legislators by barnstorming the country instead of getting down to business on the big issues of the day.
But many serious Hill giants seem delighted to have found a possible dance partner on cutting a big deal before the midterms—statesmen in the Senate like Ohio’s own Rob Portman, or Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn or Tennessee’s pragmatic tandem of Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander.
The president’s new chief of staff, Denis McDonough, who POLITCO’s Glenn Thrush seemingly characterized as a bit of an outreacholic in a recent write-up, appears to be the architect of this new strategy. McDonough is serving as a defibrillator for the Obama presidency, and its once again showing signs of life.
It could be true that all the president required was a chief of staff who grasps the political moment we find ourselves in, and isn’t too much of a partisan hack (I’m looking at you Secretary Lew) to help him find his way out.
President Obama can still lead us out of our fiscal mess, he just has to play the politics right. And this is certainly easier said than done, but I, unlike much of the Washington establishment, refuse to believe it’s impossible.
Now is it possible that the president’s charm offensive is nothing more than a cheap ploy to feign bipartisanship then run back to his comfortable perch on the campaign stump to talk about how ridiculous those silly House Republicans are?
Yes, it’s absolutely possible. It’s true that the president’s liberal political agenda is dead-on-arrival in the House, and his only hope for putting more points on the board for the leviathan is by winning back the House and holding onto the Senate in 2014.
But my read on the situation is different. I think the president and his team are savvy enough to realize that winning back the House and holding the Senate are more than likely mutually exclusive.
Gerrymandered districts mean holding all their own and winning 17 Republican seats is nearly impossible, and the strategy it would take to do so would probably sink the five Democratic Senators running for reelection in states our old friend Willard Mitt Romney carried in November.
Aggressively pushing for an assault weapons ban, or even the less controversial limiting of clips and doing universal background checks may do wonders for your liberal base, but the vote would be poison for red to purple state Democrats like Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, Montana’s Max Baucus, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, Alaska’s Mark Begich or North Carolina’s Kay Hagan.
So 2014 presents the president with a true Catch 22. Push for the House and lose the Senate, or play it safe and maintain the sound majority in the deliberative body while dealing with those darn House Republicans.
From a more macro perspective the latter is the obvious move. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of political history is long, but it bends toward sanity. Knowing this, Democrats must understand that the tea party, and the 165 some odd members of Congress they count among their ranks are not long for the political world, even with the gerrymandered maps.
Elite Democrats already can’t wait for Hillary Clinton’s reentry into the political arena, and her eight-year reign as the first woman president. 2016, if the Republicans don’t moderate and modernize, will be the year to make a play for the House. It will be much safer, and it won’t risk the Senate in the same way to run on an unabashedly liberal overarching message (there are no red state Dems up).
The president’s charm offensive and slow playing on guns seem to indicate he’s embraced reality. The days when he could pass cap and trade, or an increased minimum wage may be gone, but there are important things that can be done better in divided government, and the leviathan can have it’s steak dinner later.
Namely dealing with one number, $16.4 trillion.
But also whatever immigration package comes through the Congress will be a balance between the liberal impulse for overreach and the conservative impulse for restraint (same thing with any sort of gun package, though that’s much less likely), and same thing with the all-important grand bargain.