The Residue of Ramrod Politics

The Residue of Ramrod Politics
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The Obama administration will be known for its many initiatives – between the Affordable Care Act, the Iran deal, and his immigration executive actions, the president will leave office with an ambitious array of policy undertakings.

But what the administration lacks – public support -- will have as much impact on history as the policies themselves.

The current presidential election definitively reflects the mood of the nation – angry, almost spiteful. And the president’s nearly eight years in the White House, combined with Congress’s refusal to work collaboratively, share some of the blame. The president wants to make history, put a progressive stamp on his presidency by addressing the issues that reflect the goals of his administration. But in doing so, this administration has forgotten one key ingredient in any lasting and substantial policy change: broad-based backing from the public.

Over the course of our nation’s comparatively short history, we have witnessed numerous substantial, yet sustainable, policy shifts. Not all of these massive shifts began with majority public support – in fact, Social Security reform under President Reagan and the Civil Rights Act under President Johnson began with little public support. It took determination from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, a willingness to work together, and plenty of give-and-take before these policies gained favor in the eyes of the American public. 

When policy is born of rigorous debate, discussion, and presentation of facts, the likelihood that the tide of public opinion will turn is high. Buy-in from both parties creates credibility, which leads to longevity.

That has not been President Obama’s approach. When he wants something, he goes after it – public support or not. Congressional support or not. Republican recalcitrance didn’t help. This creates a two-pronged problem: It threatens not just the life of the policy, but also the president’s – any president’s – relationship with Congress.

This relationship matters on several levels, but in terms of legislation, developing and sustaining trust between factions is crucial. Without it, we get what we’ve seen over the last several decades: stop-gap measures, quick fixes and no real solutions. Congress, and especially Republicans in Congress, do not trust the president – his immigration actions and the Iran deal only served to diminish the role of lawmakers.

And that mistrust and division has led us here – to an election year wrought with even more political tension and confusion than is customary.

Let’s imagine for a moment that a member of Congress got on a cable news channel and, rather than bashing Obama for his ramrod approach, spoke of an arduous collaborative process that ultimately satisfied – in part or fully – the needs of both parties. Imagine a politician saying, “We didn’t get the whole loaf, but a half a loaf is better than no loaf.” How would public opinion shift if we watched our leaders work together to address the issues that plague us?

 We at No Labels believe a collaborative approach like that would change everything.

“Wow,” Americans might say, “they really worked on this. They really worked for this. Perhaps if my party can support a policy after this much collaboration, so can I.”

No Labels is built on the idea that collaboration builds working relationships, and working relationships yield successful, sustainable, long-term policies. This administration has set a precedent that threatens to dismantle a basic component of democracy, an idea so fundamental to our nation that it was practiced from its very inception: collaboration. The Founding Fathers came together and debated tirelessly until  they reached a deal that, in part or fully, satisfied them all.  

Combine the state of the current presidential election with the tone of national politics in general, and the next president will likely inherit the most divided Congress in recent history. And after Inauguration Day, there will be two ways forward: The next president can choose a new way, recalling the origins of our nation’s democracy – debate, discussion and, ultimately, give-and-take. Or the next president can choose to perpetuate the cycle of partisanship that has become standard operating procedure: One party demands, the other refuses, creating more debilitating partisanship, all at the expense of the country itself.

There is a way forward that allows for an exemplary democratic process instead of the current one Americans have roundly dismissed as broken. But it means that all three branches of government must participate at all times, following the guidelines outlined in the Constitution. Major reforms warrant major debate – the public must see the necessity and the merit in reform rather than be force-fed changes.

This requires collaboration. It requires the next president to make problem solving a priority – there will be no shortage of problems once the dust settles from what is already an ugly campaign. And from that dust will rise an opportunity – a true leader will unite both parties around the idea that our nation is capable of great things, that issues like the national debt, Social Security and Medicare, employment, and energy security are not unsolvable issues. A true leader will remind us that our differences are as crucial as our commonalities, but that above all, we are united by our love of this unique nation.  The next president will have to resist the urge to follow Obama’s lead; this leader will have to clean the residue of ramrod politics from the Oval Office, and respect the legislative process.

A true leader will seize the moment to remind us that anything is possible -- if we work together.

Nancy Jacobson is a founder of No Labels, a national organization of Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to a new politics of problem solving.

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