Obama’s Very Weak Hand

Published February 12, 2010

National Review Online

Suddenly, bipartisanship is all the rage at the Obama White House.

The president has announced that he will hold a bipartisan gathering on February 25 at Blair House, across the street from the White House, in an effort to get the health-care legislative effort out of the political ditch it is now in. Plans are also under way to stand up a bipartisan Debt Commission by executive order. The commission's mandate would be to report back to the president and Congress on how to get the nation's fiscal house in order — with a rather convenient reporting deadline of just after the November midterm elections.

In the daily back-and-forth of political news coverage, it is easy to lose sight of what a stunning turnabout this renewed interest in bipartisanship represents for Barack Obama. For more than a year, his administration attempted to govern based on an entirely different approach. The Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill welcomed any Republican willing to jump aboard their legislative plans. But, as the president and his top advisers repeatedly said, they were going to move ahead with “their agenda” — with or without willing Republican participation.

And it seemed to work — at least initially. Just after getting sworn into office, the president signed the so-called “stimulus” bill. It was heavy on additional federal spending, reflecting the prevailing sentiment among congressional Democrats that what was needed to put people back to work was another heavy dose of governmental activism. Three Senate Republicans (although one is now a Democrat) lent their support to the effort and provided the crucial last votes that delivered to the president his early-in-the-term, momentum-building victory.

The stimulus effort provided the template for how the White House planned to move ahead with the rest of its first-term agenda. To run off a string of additional victories, Democrats would need only to hold their sizeable majorities together around plans reflecting their party's governing priorities. With Democrats united and determined, moderate Republicans would see legislative passage of something as all but inevitable and decide to join the process rather than be left entirely out of “historic” legislative efforts.

On health care, all seemed to be running according to plan through the spring and early summer. The president gave a series of speeches intended to build momentum and let Democrats know that this was the year to finally “get it done.” And some Republicans, especially in the Senate, sensing that something indeed would pass, were willing to at least sit down with their Democratic counterparts to see if their participation would make a difference in the outcome.

But then reality hit. Specifically, the legislative clock was ticking, and the Democrats had to finally unveil what they actually had in mind on health care. From the moment the first versions of the House bill were made public in mid-July 2009, voter sentiment turned steadily and decisively against the entire effort.

The president had promised a non-threatening plan that would painlessly root out wasteful spending, provide almost free coverage to millions, and entail minimal disruption of existing arrangements. But once the actual legislation emerged, it was clear that what the Democrats actually planned to deliver was something entirely different from what had been advertised. The bills drafted in Congress would create another massively expensive entitlement program, financed with burdensome taxes, heavy-handed and job-killing mandates, and arbitrary cuts in Medicare. Moreover, it was clear that the Democrats wanted the federal government eventually to call all of the shots in the health-care sector, which most voters rightly view as a recipe for counterproductive bureaucracy and lower-quality care.

As the details became known, widespread public opposition to Obamacare spontaneously swept the nation and was on full display in the August town-hall meetings. But the president and his allies in Congress decided in September that it was too late to turn back. So they ignored what voters were telling them and doubled down on their bet that their coalition would hold together long enough to get a bill to final passage. And if it did, they would be able to lock into place another middle-class entitlement that would be near impossible to reverse later. The political risk was high, but so would be the reward. And so they pressed ahead.

It almost worked. Almost.

After Scott Brown's stunning victory in the Massachusetts special election last month, it is now clear that the coalition President Obama was counting on to pass his health-care bill and follow-on legislation is in absolute tatters. The strain of the effort to ram health care through despite intense public opposition has taken a very heavy toll. Independent voters remain outraged at the arrogance of it all, and have swung decisively toward GOP candidates in recent contests. Congressional Democrats now know they are in peril, and are behaving accordingly. They are in no mood to take any more tough votes on behalf of a president's agenda that their constituents have plainly rejected. Indeed, in the current environment, it's hard to see how the House could pass the same health-care bill that it passed just last November.

This puts the president in a terrible bind, especially given the difficult budgetary choices now confronting him. His 2011 budget submission to Congress shows deficits rising to $1 trillion by the end of the decade and continuing thereafter. From 1789 through 2008, the U.S. government borrowed $5.8 trillion. If the Obama budget were adopted in full, government borrowing would exceed $18 trillion by the end of the decade. Debt accumulation at such a pace would almost certainly precipitate an economic crisis.

In their heart of hearts, most Democrats think the solution to the nation's budget problem is a massive tax increase; if they had succeeded on health care, some might have been willing to use that momentum to propose one. But in the current environment, with so much distaste for out-of-control government, the White House and congressional Democrats know full well that it would be complete political suicide for them to push a tax increase at this stage.

Which brings us back to the president's renewed interest in having Republicans share in, as he put it, “the burdens of governing.”

Unfortunately for him, he is now holding a very weak hand as he heads into discussions with his adversaries. His health-care program is so unpopular that Democrats themselves are walking away from it. He promised voters he wouldn't raise taxes on the middle class, and his Democratic allies want to expand government, not contain or shrink it. So, unless he changes course, he is stuck with presiding over an unprecedented borrowing binge that threatens to cripple his administration.

Indeed, the president's capacity to govern by relying just, or mainly, on his own partisan supporters has been so impaired that he is facing the very real prospect of having spent not just one but two years in office with almost nothing to show for it.

To get out of this box, the president is belatedly trying to draw a larger number of Republicans into taking some of the blame for enacting controversial legislation. But if the president can't get his own team to support a government-centric health-care program or a massive tax increase, there's virtually no chance he will get Republicans to do so.

In the aftermath of Massachusetts, there is an opportunity for renewed bipartisan cooperation. But it won't be to pass a liberal agenda that even Democrats won't defend at this poin
t. To accomplish more, the president will have to change the substance as well as the marketing — which so far he seems unwilling to do.

James C. Capretta is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was an associate director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today