At the dawn of a new presidential term and a new Congress, the answers to two overarching questions will shape the course of the next four years:
First, about Republicans: Are green shoots of sanity beginning to appear in the permafrost of Washington dysfunction?
Second, about the president: Unchained by electoral considerations, has the real, unabashedly liberal President Obama begun to reveal himself?
My answer to the first question is a tentative and very qualified yes; to the second, an equally tentative, slightly less qualified no.
When it comes to Republicans, the most primal political instinct — self-preservation — has belatedly begun to kick in. The last few weeks have offered tangible, if limited, evidence of a new reasonableness.
On immigration, several Republican senators, understanding the relentless electoral politics of immigration, have joined with Democratic colleagues in a push for reform. Perhaps even more significant, if less noticed, a bipartisan group in the House has also been working quietly on an immigration plan — “some of the hard heads on our side, and some of the people involved in immigration reform on the other side,” Speaker John Boehner told the Ripon Society.
On the fiscal front, recognizing the self-defeating folly of a second standoff on the debt ceiling, House Republicans agreed to extend the federal government’s borrowing authority for another three months.
But Republican rationality has its limits. Particularly among House members, Republicans appear ready to allow the punitive cuts of the sequester — averted for three months by the “fiscal cliff” agreement — to take effect when the deal expires in March. Same for the prospect of a government shutdown later that month when existing funding ends.
And having been hit by Democrats over the punitive impact of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, the House instructed the Budget Committee chairman to produce an even more stringent document this time — one that gets to balance in 10 years. By contrast, the previous Ryan budget would not have reached balance until the 2030s.
The fundamental standoff between the two parties will be, once again, over taxes — specifically, the prospect of additional revenue and the Republican position, which boils down to “been there, done that.” As Republicans see it, the $737 billion (including interest) in new revenue they coughed up in the cliff deal was the end of the matter. Even as part of tax reform, additional revenue, they insist, is off the table.
This attitude is a recipe for gridlock. Republicans act as if fiscal history began with the all revenue-no spending cuts cliff agreement, conveniently forgetting the $1 trillion in cuts previously enacted. And they ignore the difficulty — both substantive and political — of implementing a cuts-only approach to the debt.
Which brings me to the president, who has, correctly, ruled out an unbalanced debt deal. Is second-term Obama a new, unbound lefty?
Granted, his second inaugural address was distinctly, and surprisingly, liberal. He paid scant attention to the need for debt reduction while emphasizing the imperatives of slowing climate change, ensuring gay rights and preserving the safety net.
But it also goes way too far to describe the speech, in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s words, as promoting an “unabashedly, far-left-of-center” agenda. It was a traditional Democratic one.
More important, those who see in the speech a more overtly ideological Obama risk making too much of his assertive tone and substantive detail. Both were unusual for an inaugural address, yet the speech was not the rhetorical equivalent of Clark Kent shedding his mild-mannered demeanor to emerge as liberal Superman.
There is no reason, for example, to believe that the president who was willing to buck his base and back reductions in Social Security cost-of-living increases has suddenly disappeared.
Rather, he remains the pragmatic progressive he has always been. Obama is more inclined to the standard liberal vision than, say, Bill Clinton. But he is also more willing than many of his ideological compatriots to make the necessary concessions to political reality, and more resistant to intellectual dogmas of both left and right.
If this understanding of Obama is correct, the more bellicose attitude of his second inaugural reflects more of a shift in strategy than substance. It represents his evolution from naive young president to battle-scarred politician.
First-term Obama placed undue faith in his power to overcome partisan divisions. Second-term Obama sees tactical advantage in staking out a position and sticking with it. Whether this approach can help thaw the Washington permafrost remains to be seen.