Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Less Hope, More Change?

A lot of ink has been spilled over the past few weeks describing President Obama's new approach in Washington.  His second inaugural address was certainly less conciliatory than the President we saw cave to Republicans repeatedly in the first term.  I think what we see is the Obama team coming to grips with the reality of American, and frankly, most politics. There are very few leaders that can work effectively across party lines by being seen as giving in to their opponents.  When Presidents and other leaders work well with others it is generally because the leaders on the other side are seen as coming to them.  President Clinton's success in the 2nd term of his presidency came after he broke the back of Newt Gingrich's Congress over the government shutdown.  President Bush worked with Ted Kennedy on No Child Left Behind because Kennedy bought into the test first, right-wing approach Bush made famous in Texas. What I think Obama learned after having to scale back the stimulus and health care reform and being boxed into a corner on the debt ceiling, is that offering to move to the centre doesn't work politically.  Politicians, like sharks, can smell blood when a President blinks first.  They'll keep pushing for more and more.

The new approach seen on the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling and now in the inaugural address is one that is far more confrontational.  Gone is the Illinois state-senator willing to reach across party lines.  The new Obama is going to stand on principle and win or lose on those grounds.  The results so far have been promising.  Republicans caved on the fiscal cliff saying that they would use their leverage on the debt ceiling.  Now they've abandoned the debt ceiling and say they're going to use the sequester and budget as their point of leverage.  Most retreating armies won't admit that they're in full retreat.  To my knowledge President Obama has never even come close to vetoing a bill.  The Democratic controlled Senate helps with that.  However, the threat of the veto, was barely used in his first term.  Now, he seems keen to let the Republicans hang themselves.  If they do something too dangerous, he can always block it with a veto or other executive action.  It may be more cynical, but on issues like immigration and tax reform, the less conciliatory more aggressive Obama may actually have more success than his first term doppelganger.

In the long run, the inaugural address signaled Obama's faith that his electoral victory is a long-term game plan.  He believes that by running to the left on things like gay marriage, gun control and immigration he can give the Democratic party a much stronger base for future elections.  Marco Rubio may be a key figure on immigration reform when it happens but it will be the President and his party who will get the lion's share of the credit in 2016.  The electoral coalition that Obama built will be tested in 2016, if he can deliver for his base in his second term, the odds of a third consecutive Democratic victory for the first time since FDR and Harry Truman becomes a lot more likely.

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