The Old Deal

[This essay, about Obama’s past, is the first essay I’ve published about the president today. The second essay is about Obama’s future, and you can read it on Pushing Rope.]

In January 2009, at the beginning of the Obama Administration, I thought everyone knew the deal.

The Republicans’ eight year stranglehold of control of the federal government went so badly that the economy was teetering on the edge of a cliff.  But the Democrats won huge margins of victory in the popular vote for the White House, as well as gaining a super-majority in the Senate and maintaining strong control over the House of Representatives.  Americans were told that the Senate super-majority was “filibuster proof” — meaning beyond tensing up before getting steamrolled, the GOP was DOA when it came to the Democratic legislative agenda. .

If we solely pay attention to comments from Obama supporters in the present day, it appears that everything went according to plan.  Their arguments supporting this are that Obama’s stimulus bill saved the economy from sinking into a depression, and Obama gave nearly all Americans health care.

I wish this was the whole story, but the platform adhered to by Obama’s ardent supporters forgets the deal.

What is this “deal” which I thought everybody knew?  The deal pertains to normal American electoral trends; and mainly the fact that in non-presidential election years, the party which holds the most power in Washington faces backlash — barring extraordinary circumstances.  One election where extraordinary circumstances existed was in 2002, just months after 9/11.  American voters were in no mood to adopt a “throw the bums out” attitude when we were just beginning to fight some wars.  But in 2006, voters put the Democrats in control of the House and Senate.  After that, everybody knows the anti-incumbent political wave continued in 2008.

In the meantime, there has not been a drastic, horrible shock to jolt the American political system.  So I thought everyone knew the deal: No matter what, Republicans were going to pick up some seats in the 2010 elections.

Back in 2008, nobody knew how much power the Republicans would gain in 2008, but that’s not the point.  The deal stipulates that the Republicans would gain some power in 2010.  This was a given — this was inarguable.  It was simply a political fact.  And given this fact, the most important thing that Obama and the Democrats could do was consolidate their power and use this moment awarded to them by the vast majority of the American electorate to ram home their agenda since, in 2010 and beyond, you had to assume that Democrats would not have a supposedly filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.  That’s the deal.

Many leaders in the Democratic Party, though — drunk on political power after Obama’s sweeping victory in 2008 — thought the deal was dead.  Just like free market economists tried telling us that housing prices would continue to climb because we’ve entered a new economic era where the old rules don’t apply, a memo was being passed around amongst Democrats that America has entered a new era.  The big losers were the Republicans, who were now a Southern/Appalachian “regional” party.  This was a foolish assumption.

I’m uncertain how far this mindset seeped into the Obama administration.  If the Republicans were a regional party, then why entertain their thoughts?  Indeed, after the mandate the American electorate handed Obama in 2008, the newly minted president wouldn’t have been faulted for telling the GOP to GFY.  Maybe Obama didn’t think he would be playing with fire if he tried giving Republicans more fair of a share in government than they had earned via the ballot box.  But if we are to assume the Obama administration wasn’t ignorant of the deal, then — and this is what I most fear — perhaps Obama truly, honestly believes that he can deal rationally with the same party who attempted have the last Democratic president impeached over a blowjob.

Regardless, Obama went forward and committed the first major error of his presidency: He made concessions to Republicans in an attempt to have the stimulus package by a bipartisan affair.

The effect that the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009” had on the Obama’s relationship with the American public — and with the Left — cannot be understated.  Passed within the first month Obama took office, it was the first major action by his administration.  Obama had spent the past couple of years courting us and flirting with us, and when we finally said yes to a date, Obama didn’t want to hold back — except he did.  He held back a lot.

Popular wisdom among left wing circles of thought today stipulates that Obama’s stimulus kept our economy from dipping into a depression; therefore it “worked”.  This argument has been used as an attack against people who voted for Obama in 2008 but didn’t vote for the “progressive agenda” last Tuesday.  [As not to be compromised with bias, this writer admits he voted Obama in 2008 but did not vote in 2010.]  I don’t disagree with the notion that the stimulus bill helped the economy, but I argue that Obama could have done more, should have done more, and the fact that he didn’t do more has left his administration in the weakened position it finds itself in today.  Obama’s current problems are his own creation, not the portion of the electorate who wasn’t excited enough to vote Democrat in 2010.

I don’t want to dwell on details of the attempted bipartisan compromise our attempted post-partisan president attempted to pull off, but here is a summary of the resulting act that I wrote for this blog on February 8, 2009:

To the detriment of the stimulus package, half the bill is now tax cuts — yet the hardline Republicans still won’t vote for it.  There’s your “bipartisanship”.  The only thing this sordid affair proves is that for President Obama to do the right thing, he needs to ram it through Congress without regard of what the Republicans think.  That’s what Obama has the political capital and votes to do right now — a confluence of power he might not have in the future.  So get it done, now.

Surely you noticed, at the end of the paragraph, I mentioned what I’m now referring to as “the deal”.  Did Obama know he was doing then, or did he think the deal was a political fallacy?  Like the Bush administration before him, did Obama believe that he lived in a world of his creation, as opposed to the “reality based” world that crumbled down around the previous president before he left office?

On February 15, 2009, in a post I also published to this blog, I was more critical — and more worried — after reading a Frank Rich column unrealistically glorifying President Obama after passage of the stimulus bill.  Looking back at that post, wherein I took Rich to the back of the proverbial woodshed and give him a few good whackings, there’s only one thing Rich said that I agree with: “Having checked the box on attempted bipartisanship, Obama can now move in for the kill.”  Apparently, Rich is cognizant of the deal as well.

Unfortunately, the president never took Rich’s advice and went in for the kill.  That much is obvious today.

So what went wrong?  Let’s ask Obama himself:

I think that there is no doubt that people’s number-one concern is the economy.  And what they were expressing great frustration about is the fact that we haven’t made enough progress on the economy.  We’ve stabilized the economy. We’ve got job growth in the private sectors.  But people all across America aren’t feeling that progress.  They don’t see it.  And they understand that I’m the President of the United States, and that my core responsibility is making sure that we’ve got an economy that’s growing, a middle class that feels secure, that jobs are being created.  And so I think I’ve got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make.

Why haven’t we made progress on the economy?  Because the first stimulus bill wasn’t strong enough.  Why wasn’t the first stimulus bill strong enough?  Because Obama tried compromising with Republicans.  Obama ignored the deal at his peril, and that hallmark “hope” of 2008 has dissipated.  American politics has circled back to a familiar quandary: We’re stuck with one party that’s getting crazier, and another party which can’t locate its spine.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president which Obama desperately needs to model his actions after, is famous for creating The New Deal.  If Obama isn’t careful, future historians might say he ignored The Old Deal.

Obama has crashed into a wall of political reality that can no longer be ignored.  The time for change — that fabled, misunderstood, much maligned concept — is now.

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