Just as they did in the Jimmy Carter presidency, liberals are now blaming everyone but the president for the political dysfunction in Washington. The country is too polarized. The media are too polarized. Republicans are impossible. They say it with a fervor that comes from having to justify why their political messiah has failed so miserably. And they say it with a lack of appreciation for presidents of both parties who had to work with the opposition. The obvious counter example is immigration reform — a contentious issue that is working its way through Congress in large part because President Obama is staying out of it.
In fact the president has a large role in the political acrimony and inability to get a budget deal, two of the main complaints about his presidency.
For starters, the Obama spinners assume that Obama is as moderate as former president Bill Clinton, for example, and therefore compromise with him is akin to compromises Clinton reached with his Congress. But in fact the current president is the most liberal president we have ever had, and a good deal of the gridlock stems from his positions as architect of huge increases in the size, scope and cost of government. Is he willing to give up an unworkable, hugely expensive Obamacare by cutting it down in size? Is he willing to explore lowering rates as part of tax reform? I didn’t think so.
But the more basic flaw in the “not Obama’s fault” theory is that it is easy to come up with a bunch of things he could have done that would have made a world of difference.
As Bob Woodward documents, Obama could have avoided enraging House Republicans and instead won some of them over by adopting some of their suggestions for the 2009 stimulus.
He could have avoided fumbling the grand bargain in 2011 with the speaker of the House (again, Woodward spells out the particulars) by declining to up the tax ante from $800 billion to $1.2 trillion.
Obama could have adopted the Simpson-Bowles proposal.
The president could have declined to ram through Obamacare on a straight party-line vote and instead sought incremental, popular reforms.
Instead of Obamacare, he could have pursued tax reform in the first term, managing to jolt the economy and promote populist aims (e.g. getting rid of tax preferences for certain industries).
He could have run on something in 2012 (other than destroying Mitt Romney) to have claim to a mandate.
He could have foregone spending endless energy on what became a minimalist anti-gun bill and a political loser for him. (This was akin to President George W. Bush going for Social Security reform before tackling immigration reform.)
But mostly, the president could have, from the start, not vilified his opponents. He could have chosen not to travel around the country attacking their motives, claiming they put party above country, asserting they want us to breathe dirty air and unclean water, and haranguing them for an invented “war on women.”
These base-pleasing antics have consequences. They annoy and alienate opponents. Obama doesn’t have the desire to spend time trying to understand GOP concerns or how they tick. He thinks he knows them, and they’re wrong. His contempt for them is apparent. So, of course, they don’t want to bend his way.
Do liberal pundits think that New Jersey Democrats are push-overs or not very liberal? Somehow Republican Gov. Chris Christie figured out how to horse trade, cajole, bluster, inspire and win over enough of them to get some impressive bipartisan accomplishments. In other words he understood how to govern. Obama does not. Rather than make excuses for him the sycophantic punditocracy would do their liberal cause more good by putting down the pom-poms and leveling with him, delivering honest criticism.
Finally, the president’s foreign policy performance — in an arena where the president is dominant role– has been horrendous, even for him, of late. In feigning lack of clarity on Syria, continuing with an ineffective sanctions policy on Iran, doing nothing much about Pyongyang, meandering aimlessly through the Arab Spring and prevaricating over Benghazi, Libya, he’s confirmed how little authority he projects. Our enemies don’t fear us and our friends don’t trust us. In the “peace process” both the Israelis and Palestinians wound up distrusting him. That’s not too different than the effect he has on his domestic political adversaries and allies.