President Obama has a unique gift. The president who saw “no red states or blue states, just the United States” has managed to alienate Republicans on some issues, Democrats on others and increasingly both at the same time.
Republicans have long been vilified by the president. He has accused them of putting party above country, practicing Social Darwinism, doubting the utility of Social Security and wanting us to drink dirty water and unclear air. His mere presence in deal making is so off-putting that if he really wants a deal, he needs to keep a low profile on some issues (e.g. immigration during the Senate debate) or send in Vice President Joe Biden (e.g. budget deals). His high-handed unilateralism (e.g. on Dream immigrants, on multiple aspects of Obamacare) suggests to Republicans a contempt for them and the Constitution.
Democrats have been burned badly by Obamacare. Certainly they had their own obligation to understand what statute they were voting for, but they were entitled to expect a level of competence on executing their historic legislation. Not only the incompetency but the dishonesty about the incompetence have left them badly exposed.
However, misery loves company. In the shockingly imbalanced Iran deal, as well as the ever-changing landscape of Obamacare, more Democrats are finding common cause with Republicans In the first term, there was the Democrats vs. the Republicans; in the second it is more often the executive vs. the legislative branch. (The big exception to this is the filibuster rule change, although some Democrats have the sinking sensation it might have been a bad idea.) Democrats in the first term refused to acknowledge there was a real Benghazi, Libya, scandal; in the second they grudgingly assented to an IRS inquest. Moreover, neither party hears much from the White House until a crisis breaks out, and when they do the administration is often unhelpful (e.g. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Senate briefing on Iran).
On one level this is second-term hubris coming back to bite Obama. His misrepresentations and missteps have caught up with him, and with no reelection for him to defend, Democrats are willing to be more critical of the leader of their party. But it does not escape notice that Obama’s own personality and character failings, his poor negotiating skills and his certitude that he is on the side of the angels exacerbates the problem.
The irony, then, is that if the Senate flips to a GOP majority, more might get done than if the current arrangement continues. In the event that the Senate has a GOP majority (albeit not filibuster-proof, to the extent the filibuster still exists) there will be incentives to lure over key Democrats and keep moderates in their court. Surely the president could threaten vetoes, but a House and Senate working in doses with Democrats to send a steady stream of legislation to the White House will keep the president from claiming Congress is dysfunctional and gridlocked.
Maybe it is the president’s relationship with Congress as a whole that is dysfunctional. Neither party hears from him. Lawmakers roll their eyes in disgust over the Obamacare fiasco. They can’t believe he’s given up as much as he has to Iran at the time when we have the most leverage. If nothing else, they have a bond with members of the opposing party who also must cope with a divisive and uninformed chief executive surrounded by yes-men and a foot-thick echo chamber. If Democrats and Republicans can learn to get a few things done they can escape the pall Obama has cast over the federal government. And they might just save their jobs.