It’s little surprise that the Americans who voted for change in 2008 have shunned Barack Obama. George W Bush spent big and ran deficits a policy which Obama has vastly expanded. Where Bush vastly expanded Medicare spending Obama pushed through the monstrous Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. All Obama has done is double up on whatever Bush did but that, in fairness, is all he promised to do. The wonder is why they voted for him in the first place.
Obama can still rescue his presidency if he can learn some lessons from history. He faces a similar situation to the one Bill Clinton faced in 1994 when, in that year’s mid terms, Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
In his first two years Clinton had taken some painful but necessary actions such as tackling the deficit and approving the NAFTA. However, he had also wasted political capital on pushing fringe issues, like the right for gays to serve openly in the military and grossly unpopular ones like the disastrously doomed Hillarycare. Along with the lingering whiff of corruption, Newt Gingrich’s resurgent Republicans with their ‘Contract with America’ looked to have scuppered Slick Willie.
Yet the Comeback Kid (Clinton generated as many nicknames as scandals) was easily re elected in 1996. Along with his advisor Dick Morris (reborn as a Republican and recently author of ‘Fleeced: How Barack Obama, Media Mockery of Terrorist Threats, Liberals Who Want To Kill Talk Radio, The Do-Nothing Congress, Companies That Help Iran, And Washington Lobbyists For Foreign Governments Are Scamming Us…And What To Do About It’), he invented ‘triangulation’ which, essentially, meant taking some items of the Republican legislative agenda, like welfare reform, smaller government and a balanced budget, and taking them for himself. “I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans” Clinton had sarcastically told staffers shortly after his election. After his re election he wore the tag with honour.
Haley Barbour, Chairman of the RNC, paid tribute to the ability Clinton shared “with the hummingbird the amazing ability to turn 180 degrees in a wink”. To a Democrat, like George Stephanopoluos, triangulation was “a fancy word for betrayal”. Obama must be prepared to court praise from Republicans and ire from Democrats. He could make a start by sidelining Nancy Pelosi and working as closely with Mitch McConnell as with Harry Reid. He needs to make at least a start on regaining control of the country’s catastrophic finances.
The situation has its challenges for Republicans. Representative John Shimkus admitted “We know that this really wasn’t a vote for us. It was a vote against the Obama agenda. We take on this responsibility very humbly”. On the other hand Mitch McConnell made an early bid for repealing Obamacare saying “The only way to do all those things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things”.
This is the GOP’s dilemma; work too well with Obama and he gets re elected. Try to block him constantly and re fight the battles of the last two years and be seen as sacrificing the economy for ideology. A poll for the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 35% of Americans named the economy as the issue which would most sway their vote while just 10% named health. The Republicans would be as unwise to substitute their concern for healthcare for the public’s worry about the economy as President Obama was.
This has spooked some about ‘Gridlock’ which the Founders just called checks and balances. That is why the government is split between executive, judicial, and legislative branches with the last split in two again. Gridlock is constitutional.
Different parties holding the Capitol and White House can work well in practice. After initial clashes which briefly shut down the government in 1995 the uneasy relationship between Clinton and Gingrich’s Republicans produced welfare reform in 1996 and a balanced budget in 1997 and a fall in unemployment from 6% to 4%. As Madison predicted, the two act as breaks on the others excesses.
It can work again. An encouraging sign is that new House Speaker John Boehner is not Newt Gingrich. Less encouraging was President Obama’s half hearted mea culpa where he said “We were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that, yeah, leadership isn’t just legislation, that it’s a matter of persuading people and giving them confidence and bringing them together, and setting a tone”. The failure of presentation rather than policy is an old excuse for ailing governments everywhere. But if this is just politics and he does move towards a working relationship with the Republicans we could well see another ‘Eisenhower Republican’ elected in 2012.
This article first appeared at Global Politics