Will He Fight or Compromise?
Obama has a chance to use the will of the majority to break the deadlock
One of the great political debates in Washington—and around the country—has been about whether Barack Obama is a highly partisan Democrat bent on a liberal agenda or a centrist searching for compromise. It’s still early in his second term, but he has recently made moves that seem to answer the question. Obama could easily choose a partisan strategy that would be politically effective: Don’t make deals with the Republicans on immigration or entitlement reform, and go into the 2014 congressional elections with those problems still live. A deal on either front would allow Republicans to share credit and, most important, take the issue off the table. With no deal, Democrats could campaign as the guardians of Medicare and advocates of immigration reform, both electoral winners. For this reason, some Democratic Senators have begun to make demands well beyond what Republicans can accept.
But Obama has chosen the second path. In late January, as soon as a group of Republican and Democratic Senators joined forces behind a unified approach to immigration reform, Obama signaled his support for it. And this week, in urging Congress not to allow the so-called sequestration process to force massive spending cuts, the White House said Obama’s budget proposals to House Speaker John Boehner were “very much on the table.” Those proposals include entitlement reforms that arouse immediate opposition from Democrats. Obama might be doing this because he wants to notch some legislative accomplishments and leave a legacy. Even if that’s the case, the strategy might be good not only for Obama but also for the country.
The real question is, Will anyone follow him? Is Washington so polarized and dysfunctional that it will not be able to find a way to pass any compromise package on these—or other—issues?
There are many who argue that Washington, rather than being broken, simply represents a country that is deeply divided. If so, the issues at hand should provide a useful set of tests. Thumping majorities of Americans support immigration reform. Some 72% say undocumented workers should be given green cards or citizenship. A similar percentage wants to give more visas to high-technology workers. A solid majority opposes the sequestration cuts. On gun control, large majorities favor some commonsense controls: 85% of Americans support universal background checks; 80% support preventing those with mental illnesses from buying guns; 58% and 55%, respectively, would ban semiautomatic and assault-style weapons. Interestingly, even on energy policy, large majorities want more action. Seven out of 10 favor higher emissions and pollution standards; 69% want more funding for wind and solar energy.
In a large, diverse democracy, these are substantial national majorities. But will they translate into legislative majorities in Washington? If not, it suggests there is a real disconnect between the country and its capital.
In a recent set of posts on the Washington Post’s invaluable Wonkblog, George Washington University scholar John Sides argues that the problem with Congress is not gerrymandering, as so many (including Obama) have maintained. It is instead that the political parties have become more ideological, nudged in part by local party officials, who impose more-stringent litmus tests for candidates on spending, taxing and social issues. I would add to those factors the need for endless fundraising and today’s partisan media, which also feed this process, though I would not discount gerrymandering. Many forces have created the current political system.
If Washington can tackle some of the outstanding issues facing the country, it could create a virtuous cycle. The American economy is recovering. The housing market is slowly re-emerging and will boom again as America’s population grows over the next few decades. The energy revolution is lowering costs for manufacturing while adding jobs in the energy sector. America’s financial sector is in better shape than those of most rich countries. And American households have rebuilt their balance sheets; our savings rate today is higher than that of frugal Canada. A new Congressional Budget Office report has deficits returning to precrisis levels in a few years.
We don’t need a grand bargain. Even moderate reform—on immigration, gun control, energy policy and (most difficult) the budget—would give a powerful boost to the country, beyond the specific economic impact. Politicians could demonstrate that they can actually govern. Everyone would get some credit. America would have found its center.