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Obama's Poll Bump Is a Message for Republicans

Obama's Poll Bump Is a Message for Republicans

By Bill Scher - December 29, 2014

After a lame-duck period in which we’ve seen a Cuba thaw, a China climate deal, and an undocumented immigrant reprieve, President Obama was awarded with his highest approval ratings in many months. His popularity has ticked up since November, with young voters, women and—most notably—independents accounting for the boost.

“How can this be?” Republicans must be wondering. They just seized the Senate with a campaign based on little else but attacking incumbent Democrats for voting with Obama. Why are Americans rewarding him now? It’s a question Republicans should think long and hard about before they fully take over Congress next week.

Obama’s increased popularity is a reminder that voters did not rebuff him in November solely on ideological grounds, but also out of frustration with a dysfunctional Washington unable to address long-standing national problems. When Obama is seen blowing through the roadblocks, that frustration dissipates.

Successful Republican campaigns in swing states captured the frustrated mood of the electorate. When Colorado’s Cory Gardner attacked Sen. Mark Udall’s partisanship, he focused not on criticism of Democratic positions but on his own  pledge to get things done in a bipartisan fashion.

“When my party is wrong, I’ll say it,” Gardner vowed. “When something is broken, I’ll fix it.” Similarly, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis parried attacks on his state legislative record by assuring voters, “I worked with both parties” to raise education spending.

Bipartisanship was not sold as an end in itself, but a means to making government work. In turn, when Obama gets things done, it doesn’t behoove Republicans to complain that he’s not being bipartisan enough. It puts pressure on Republicans to prove they want to get things done too. If the election results were, as Republicans claim, a message delivered to the White House, then the post-election public response is another message to Capitol Hill.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who overcame being caricatured by Democrats as the face of Washington dysfunction to win re-election, seems to grasp the public mood.  In an interview with Roll Call, McConnell said he detected two separate messages from voters. “People were mad as hell at the president,” he said. “Our new members were also hearing—and I was hearing as well—that people didn’t like the fact that the Congress was dysfunctional. … That’s going to change.”

But when McConnell talks about change, he mainly discusses tinkering with Senate procedures. He’s mentioned having committees take the lead in shaping legislation, allowing senators to propose more floor amendments, pursuing individual appropriations bills instead of omnibus bills and continuing resolutions. None of these changes, in and of themselves, guarantees that Congress and the White House will become partners in functionality. Committee squabbling, “poison pill” amendments, and general ideological inflexibility could still mean that, despite McConnell’s best intentions, the Senate remains a legislative sinkhole.

More worrisome, when McConnell talks about his policy agenda, is that he offers little to suggest he comprehends the voters’ larger message about effective cooperation.

“We certainly will have a vote on proceeding to a bill to repeal Obamacare,” he promises, as if that wouldn’t be the epitome of grandstanding over governing. Acknowledging that Obama will never sign a repeal, he insists, “We will go at that law … in every way that we can," including attempts to repeal the law’s linchpin, the individual mandate. This is hardly thoughtful reform designed to make the nation’s health care system work better, but a ham-fisted attempt to mangle the law beyond recognition and send us back to square one.

Likewise, his claims about turning the appropriations process into a model of efficiency are undermined by his promise to use the bills that keep the government open for riders that would “rein in” Obama’s regulatory powers. Specifically, McConnell wants to attach prohibitions on the Environmental Protection Agency that would thwart, in his words, Obama’s “crusade on CO2 emissions.” In other words, McConnell wants to stop Obama from trying to solve the problem of climate change.

The first vote the new majority leader plans to schedule is a bill to override the executive branch’s authority regarding the Keystone oil pipeline. On its face, this would be a bill designed to do something instead of blocking something. But the choice of Keystone is a strange issue to prioritize. Plunging domestic gasoline prices hardly make bringing Canadian tar sands oil to the world market an urgent matter.

Furthermore, it’s not clear McConnell wants a bill that will become law or another vehicle for partisan combat, since the legislation appears headed for a presidential veto. McConnell’s insistence on a freewheeling amendment process means that the measure could become another vehicle for anti-Obama poison pills. Even if the bill stays “clean,” Obama has repeatedly said a decision on Keystone should wait until the Nebraska Supreme Court rules on whether the state can use eminent domain to run the pipeline through private land. Instead of beginning on an antagonistic note by trying to jam Obama, McConnell could wait until the court rules, assess the White House response, and perhaps pursue a compromise if the president remains resistant—before embarking on contentious legislation.

Despite their recent victory, Republicans enter 2015 with two disadvantages. Obama has an agenda in hand that his bureaucracy has been diligently pursuing for years, while Republicans chose not to run this year on a unified platform because their factions don’t agree on policy specifics. And the president can act unilaterally and accomplish things, while Republicans can’t accomplish anything without Obama’s consent or without enough Democrats to forge a veto-proof majority.

McConnell is cognizant of the challenge in front of him. He revealed as much last week in comments to the New York Times implicitly directed at recalcitrant members of his party.

“All of us from time to time make a point,” he said. “But it is time now to make a difference.” He knows that Republicans are unable to make a difference without cooperating with the president, yet he is unable or unwilling to articulate a strategy to secure that cooperation. If he can’t devise one early in 2015, before the presidential campaign makes compromise increasingly elusive, his Republican Party is in for a rude awakening.

Bill Scher is executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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