Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Longest Yard




Obama has always been about the long game, which has left Congress scratching its collective head as its members typically play for short term games.  In part that is because they are always having to think about re-election every two years.  There rarely appears to be any overall strategy from either Democrats or Republicans, but rather an attempt to steamroll bills through Congress when one party or the other believes they have the numbers to do so.

In Obama's first two years, the Dems had the number to push through a Stimulus Bill and Affordable Care Act that became the defining issues in the 2010 midterms when the Republicans recaptured the House.  They couldn't very well overturn the Stimulus Bill, since it was only designed to last 3 years, but they made the ACA their pet issues, trying in vain to override it 50 times.  The Obama administration has made it an imperative to carry through on the ACA, and survived state and Supreme Court challenges in getting the long anticipated health insurance exchanges off the ground.

However, the battle over "Obamacare" cost the President a vote on an energy bill he badly wanted to push through Congress.  Democrats failed to get behind it and Republicans staunchly opposed it.  Obama had already included a number of energy efficient programs in the Stimulus Bill and has used his executive powers to carry out other initiatives.  But, his biggest coup came last year when he reached an agreement with China to cut down on carbon emissions, the two countries being the biggest abusers in this regard.

Needless to say, the Republicans were up in arms.  How dare Obama negotiate a deal like this behind their back.  They wrongly believed it compromised America's energy policy.  To this point, Obama had largely been portrayed as an ineffectual president in the conservative media, but after this historic agreement and his executive order on immigration reform, he was now seen as a dictator and a tyrant. The Republicans thought they had won a mandate in the 2014 midterms when they took full control of Congress, but here was the President negotiating energy policy and pursuing immigration reform on his own and there was nothing they could do about it.

As Ezra Klein writes, Obama has discovered an ingenuous new strategy to counter Republican opposition.   He lets Congress alone and expects Congress to leave him alone.  The President has chosen to work within his purview, no longer trying to push contentious bills through Congress, but rather staking out a new foreign policy that presents the United States in an entirely different light.

He followed up the China agreement with official recognition of Cuba, and if that wasn't enough began negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear program.  He had always said he was willing to negotiate with autocratic governments, but saved it for his final two years in which he had no worries of how it would reflect on him in the polls.  Oddly enough, his poll numbers have shot up ever since he embarked on this course, much to the chagrin of Congress.

It's not just Republicans, but Blue Dog Democrats who saw Obama as the enemy.  Mary Landrieu made a last ditch effort to shove the Keystone pipeline down the Congressional throat in an effort to win a run-off election in her home state of Louisiana, which would benefit heavily from this pipeline.  Obama refused to budge and poor Mary failed to get the votes and lost her Senate seat.  This sent a pretty clear message to other recalcitrant Democrats who have kept Obama at arm's length.

It isn't so much a new Obama as it is a more emboldened Obama.  I think he understood the nature of his tenure from the beginning, and at each stage did what he could do to steer the country in a positive direction.  Throughout his embattled six years leading up to the 2014 midterms, he worked with the Federal Reserve to stimulate the economy when it needed it.  As a result, the economy grew steadily throughout those years and finally started producing meaningful jobs at the beginning of his second term.  The official unemployment rate now stands at 5.5 per cent, well below the 6 per cent Mitt Romney promised if he was elected President.  Yet, Presidential candidates like Jeb Bush still bemoan what they regard as a "failed economy."

Time and again, Obama has outsmarted and outflanked his opponents, both within and without his Democratic Party.  One can ascribe this political savvy to a tight inner circle that has always kept the long game in mind, determined to carry out this administration for a full eight years and leave a substantial legacy.  That inner circle has changed over the years but the fundamentals have stayed in place.

Cabinet members have complained of being ignored.  Leon Panetta offered the lengthiest rant in his memoirs published last year, but the reality of the situation is that we live in a much safer world today thanks largely to what has been a consistent foreign policy that balances diplomacy with military action, and has earned the respect of other nations.   It seems that Panetta, like other disgruntled former cabinet members, was simply trying to score points in the press in an effort to peddle his "tell all" books.  I'm sure you can find the book in the bargain bin today.

It remains to be seen whether Congress challenges Obama on Cuba and Iran.  Opponents would need a veto-proof majority of 67 members in the Senate to do so, which is a pretty tall order, even if Chuck Schumer stands beside Mitch in opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement.  Democrats learned the hard way in 2014 that it was a mistake to distance themselves from Obama and I doubt those up for re-election will do the same again.  Even Hillary is offering guarded praise for the nuclear agreement, and as we all know she doesn't trust Iran.

I well imagine we will be seeing more Democrats embracing Obama on the campaign trail this time around, as they all want his new found popularity to rub off on them.   He has also given them the issues they should fight for, proving that climate policies, immigration reform, gay marriage, renewed ties with Cuba and a more peaceful foreign policy are all popular with the national electorate.  The Republicans can hold onto the Southern and remote Western states.  But, in this year's battleground states the pressing issues favor the Democrats, and they have Obama to thank for putting them front and center, provided of course they don't fumble the ball on the one-yard line.

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