The ennui that hangs over the second inauguration of President Obama like a thick blanket of fog is not simply a function of Republican weariness and wariness after four years of fights with the president. Democrats too are less than thrilled on this august occasion.
As my colleague Dana Milbank put it, Obama’s agenda looks “little.” The certitude that he will accomplish significant things is nowhere to be found. Those who made the case for his reelection seem almost wistful. The Post editorial board writes, “We hope, given the opportunity, he will rededicate himself to being a president who is bigger than party and above partisan squabbling.” But we’ve seen too much of the president and watched him in operation long enough to sense that isn’t going to happen.
It turns out it is harder than one suspects to pivot away from an empty campaign entirely devoted to character assassination of the opposition. Once lost, it becomes difficult to regain the high ground and concoct a mandate for much of anything. (Obama sure didn’t run on gun bans.) He didn’t bother in his reelection campaign to lay out any sort of growth agenda to ignite the still lethargic economy nor on any specific entitlement reform approach. His solution to almost any issue is to spend more money and tax someone else. He ran on nastiness and demonization; for once he is governing just as he campaigned.
The president since his reelection has been joyless and irritable, taking pleasure only in taunting his political opponents. His first question on any issue seems to be: What will make the Republicans look bad? It is such a partisan, senseless exercise ( So what if they look bad? What about the country?). You can understand why only ideological clones and yes-men will be part of his second term inner circle. Anyone else might press for actual compromise, serious policy or tough choices.
His words today will no doubt echo his past calls for post-partisanship and for unity. He’ll call for us to be bigger and to eschew partisan advantage. He is now however uniquely unqualified, maybe disqualified is more accurate, from delivering that lecture.
It is not “big” to reduce every opportunity for major consensus on fiscal reform to the lowest common denominator of action so as never to disappoint his left-wing base. It is not unifying to claim Republicans harbor “suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat.” Too often he sounds more like his campaign hacks David Plouffe and David Axelrod than the president of the United States.
So his words will ring hollow today, even among supporters I suspect. For they too seem to cherish only beating the opponents rather than solving our biggest problems. How often do they observe with glee that a certain maneuver or speech is making life difficult for Republicans? Much more often than they have any praise for accomplishing big things or for showing magnanimity.
The Republicans are growing accustomed to their role in opposition. In figuring out how to delink the potential for default from entitlement reform they have fulfilled the first maxim of a party out of the White House: Don’t give the president a juicy target. In this case the strategy of averting a fight is even more compelling because it is all the president has. If not stigmatizing the Republicans, appointing in-your-face nominees and surrounding himself with children to make his opposition appear downright evil, how would he fill his days?
Like a martial arts expert who uses minimal energy to direct his attacker’s blows back at him, the Republicans must deflect Obama’s barbs and carry on. No, Mr. President we won’t let the country default. No, Mr. President we’re not going to support an unworkable assault-rifle ban; we’ll let the Senate pass gun bans if they can get the Democratic votes. Deflect and present their alternative. Deflect and present their alternative. That is the way to make it through four more years.
If Republicans do their job (pass responsible budgets, oppose extreme and unqualified nominees, set forth a pro-jobs agenda that includes tax reform) and can force the Senate to act (and hence to be held accountable) they will avoid political disaster and set the scene for 2014. Along the way they will discover that while they cannot pass their own agenda, they can protect the country from the worst nominees and the worst legislation.
This political reality is why the president to many ears today will sound like the squawky voices of adults in a Peanuts cartoon — harsh background noise. The real action will be in the House and Senate as Democrats strain to avoid controversy and hard votes while Republicans show their policy wares to the American people. No, the voters didn’t give the GOP the White House or Senate, but they gave them the ability to check the president and to rebuild a case for a different kind of president and a different set of policies.