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Too Bad Obama Didn't Follow His Own Advice

Too Bad Obama Didn't Follow His Own Advice

By Tom Bevan - August 13, 2014

If you want just 100 percent and the notion is that the winner really does take all—all the spoils—sooner or later that government is going to break down.” – President Obama to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, August 8, 2014.

Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won.” – President Obama to House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, January 23, 2009.

If only the current-day President Obama could travel back in time and warn his newly elected self about the dangers of pursuing a governing agenda that excludes and alienates the opposition.

In the first quote above, Obama is describing the “maximalist” positions of the Maliki government in Iraq, arguing that its behavior destined it to fail in the long term. He returned to the theme later in the interview, this time applying it to U.S. domestic politics:

“Our politics are dysfunctional, and something that I said earlier serves as a warning to us: and that is, societies don’t work when political factions take maximalist positions. And the more diverse the country is, the less it can afford to take maximalist positions.”

This is sage advice. Too bad he didn't follow it himself.

So much of the president’s current troubles can be traced back to his comment to Eric Cantor, which the president uttered at a meeting held just three days into his first term. The setting was a White House meeting hosted by the freshly inaugurated president and his top economic advisers. Their guests were congressional leaders of both parties and both chambers of Congress—there to discuss the framework of the huge stimulus bill hurtling through the newly installed 111th Congress.

Despite Obama’s bravado in the meeting, he also expressed openness to the ideas Cantor proposed.  As Carl M. Cannon and I reported in our eBook, “Election 2012: The Battle Begins,” Republican lawmakers left the White House feeling Obama was sincere in his desire to work with them on crafting the legislation.

But it quickly became apparent that this was little more than lip service. Republicans discovered that most of the stimulus bill had already been written behind closed doors by Nancy Pelosi and David Obey, then chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Obama failed to step in, and almost nothing Republicans suggested to the president was seriously considered by Democrats, let alone incorporated into the legislation.

Republicans felt used by the president, and disrespected by their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Not a single GOP House lawmaker voted in favor of the stimulus. Whatever political goodwill that existed in the aftermath of the 2008 election was gone less than a week after Obama’s inauguration. The well was poisoned then and there.

The president followed up his stimulus package victory by moving full steam ahead on a gargantuan health care bill that was eventually passed a year later—again strictly along party lines—with the help of procedural gimmicks and backroom deals. 

If Obama ever had a chance to “un-poison” the well with the GOP, it vanished when the Affordable Care Act became law in early 2010. But imagine how things could have played out differently if Obama in 2009 had taken the advice from himself on Friday. Imagine if the president had chosen to accommodate his political opponents early on, instead of pressing forward with a maximalist “my way or the highway” attitude.

At the time, Republicans were weak, rudderless, and demoralized. Obama’s approval rating in late January 2009 stood over 63 percent and his disapproval rating was only 20 percent. The GOP was reeling from an election in which they were routed pretty much across the board by a popular new president, including a big loss among independents voters. Obama’s not the first president, nor will he be the last, to misread his election as a “mandate.” It would have taken real insight, and no small amount of political courage, for Obama to compromise. His progressive base, still euphoric over his election, would have been livid at the idea of working with Republicans. Instead of extending a hand to their defeated political opponents, liberal activists preferred putting a boot on their throats.

However, as Democrats should now see in hindsight, a smarter strategy would have been to encourage Republicans to buy into the stimulus bill right from the start.  The package would have had to be smaller, true, but bringing Republican moderates with him could have changed the entire trajectory of Obama’s first term. Not only would they have given him significant political cover, but he would have effectively split the Republican caucus – thereby weakening it even further. Instead, he instantly unified it.

Liberal critics say that Obama didn’t really have a negotiating partner—the same complaint conservatives make in reverse—and that compromising with Republicans in 2009 and 2010 on the budget and health care wouldn’t have translated into any significant Republican support.

Perhaps that’s true, but we’ll never know because he didn’t try it. It turns out Americans didn’t elect Obama in 2008 because they were desperate for universal health care. They elected him because of his aspirational appeal, which included a promise to be “post-partisan,” to be pragmatic, and to deliver on his promise to “fix” our broken political system. But the very first decision he made— in hindsight, perhaps the most consequential of his presidency—only served to bust our political system further.  It’s been more or less downhill ever since.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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