Commentary Magazine


Will Obama’s Lurch Left Reunite the GOP?

The spin coming out of the White House over the last several days about tomorrow’s State of the Union speech led some people to suppose that there would be a change of tone from the stridently ideological tone that the president sounded in his second inaugural. We were told that the centerpiece of the speech would be about jobs, a topic that President Obama all but ignored on January 21. There was some expectation that he would accompany it with an olive branch to Republicans rather than the “I won the election, deal with it” tone of the inaugural. But sources close to the president are saying that any idea that we’ll be hearing a kindler and gentler Barack Obama addressing Congress is pure fantasy. As Politico reports:

Emboldened by electoral victory and convinced the GOP is unwilling to cut deals, Obama plans to use his big prime-time address Tuesday night to issue another broad challenge at a Republican Party he regards as vulnerable and divided, Democrats close to Obama say.

The president’s goal is to use his current advantageous position to force the Republicans to accept more tax hikes and minimal spending decreases in any deal to head off the disastrous mandatory cuts that will be implemented as part of the looming mandatory sequester cuts. In other words, rather than trying to work with Congress, the president will be doubling down on his provocative inaugural lurch to the left. This strategy is based on a realistic evaluation of his current relative strength vis-à-vis the Republicans. But if he thinks he can repeat his fiscal cliff victory over Congressional Republicans he’s dreaming. He may think this is the path to a successful second term during which he will no longer be at the mercy of his opponents. But by choosing to fight rather than to deal, Obama may be setting in motion a chain of events that could derail the economy and his presidency.

The president’s confrontational strategy is based on two factors that were very much in evidence six weeks as the fiscal cliff was barely averted by a deal most Republicans hated. One is that the majority of the House GOP caucus fears being blamed for any standoff with the president that will harm the economy. The other is that the Republicans are so divided between mainstream members of Congress led by House Speaker John Boehner and Tea Party insurgents that there is no way for them to work together to thwart the president’s initiatives.

But what Obama fails to realize is that a presidential attempt to shove a liberal agenda down the throat of Congress is the one thing that can reunite the GOP. Moreover, having already given in on tax increases to avoid the fiscal cliff, the pressure he thinks he can exert on Congress to raise taxes again is not as great as he thinks it is. With some Republicans already foolishly welcoming the sequester, Obama may have created a set of circumstances in which Boehner will have no choice but to do something that he’d rather avoid and call the president’s bluff.

Barack Obama would not be the first president to misinterpret a relatively narrow if clear re-election victory as a mandate to transform American politics. But its doubtful that any of his predecessors have demonstrated more overconfidence than he is showing by assuming that a 51 percent vote means that a body of Congress led by his opposition must knuckle under to his dictates without a fight.

Republicans have decided that any effort to force the president to deal with the looming budget crisis by forcing his hand via the debt ceiling is a mistake. But the notion that they will abandon the entitlement reform that is the only path to fiscal sanity while also buying into his call for more “investments” that will sink the country further into debt is pure science fiction.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has always appeared to seek confrontation rather than agreement on the premise that doing so will only enhance his popularity. So far it has worked, but the tilt to the left may be based on an overestimation of the strength of his position. Contrary to what his aides seem to think, at this stage, he has every bit as much to lose from a standoff that will harm the economy. No matter how much he demagogues the GOP about taxing the rich and disingenuous arguments about helping the middle class, the voters will not reward him with victory in the 2014 midterm elections if the economy tanks in the next year.

In his inaugural address, the president demonstrated that he had learned nothing from his first four years in office about working with Republicans to help the country. Instead of further exploiting his opponent’s weakness, he may be on the verge of bringing together a badly divided Republican Party. By doubling down on this partisan tack in his SOTU speech, he may do himself far more damage than the GOP could ever think of doing to him.

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