Obama's Unsung Bipartisan Legacy
After eight years in office, President Obama leaves an America more divided than when he arrived. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for a man who burst onto the political stage with a powerful message about unity. And many want to pin the blame for the heightened polarization on how he governed.
On the right, Obama’s ruthless partisanship is at fault -- jamming Obamacare through Congress without any Republican votes, then relying on what opponents deem unconstitutional executive orders when he could no longer cajole Congress. On the left, you hear the opposite critique: Obama was too naïve in his futile pursuit of bipartisanship, allowing Republican obstructionism to reign supreme, which prevented him from unifying the country around his agenda.
Both narratives overlook Obama’s unsung bipartisan legacy. Almost everything he did accomplish on the domestic front was due to his tenacious pursuit of Republican votes.
Yes, Obamacare passed without any Republican support, but that’s the single example of purely partisan legislation in the Obama Era. Every other bill signed by Obama came with at least one Republican vote. Granted, some came with more than others. But getting just one vote from the other side always involved determined negotiation and substantive compromise.
The Recovery Act – the economic stimulus law that blunted the recession – only passed after Obama accepted the demand from three Senate Republicans to reduce the size of the package by about $100 billion, mostly by paring back spending proposals. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill also squeaked through the Senate with three Republican votes. Obama sealed the deal after making a key concession to newly elected Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, scrapping an outright ban on commercial banks investing in high-risk funds in favor of allowing limited investments.
In his second term, Obama withstood the civil libertarian outcry that followed the Edward Snowden leaks and shaped a bipartisan surveillance reform law – supported by more than three out of every four House Republicans -- that made some small concessions to privacy advocates without hindering the National Security Agency’s core counter-terrorism work.
Obama had several other bipartisan successes in which he kept a low profile during the legislative process, allowing Republicans to cross the aisle without seeming like they were doing him a political favor. The Pentagon and a bipartisan duo of Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins took the lead on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” winning over eight Senate Republicans for the final vote in the lame-duck 2010 session. Around the same time, a major food safety bill, designed to give the Food & Drug Administration more power to recall tainted goods, cleared the Senate by voice votes and picked up 10 House Republicans.
Earlier in 2010, a bill to reduce the racially discriminatory disparity in mandatory prison sentences between crack and powder cocaine convictions, flew through both houses of Congress on voice votes. In 2015, Obama let the House Republican and Democratic leaders spearhead a revamp of how Medicare reimburses physicians, moving toward a system where payments are based on quality of care instead of quantity of procedures.
Finally, there are two particularly consequential acts of bipartisanship that are poorly understood. One is the 2010 tax cut deal.
Obama was accused of capitulation when, after the 2010 midterms in which Republicans claimed the House, he agreed to extend George W. Bush’s signature tax cut law, which was due to expire, for two more years. In exchange, Republicans accepted a temporary extension for long-term unemployment insurance and a one-year payroll tax cut. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman claimed it was a recipe to make the Bush tax cuts permanent: “if Democrats give in to the blackmailers now, they’ll just face more demands in the future.” Bernie Sanders famously seized the Senate floor for eight hours in a desperate attempt to derail the compromise. Then in his own presidential bid, he criticized Obama for trying to be “reasonable” with Republicans.
But Obama wisely played the long game. He didn’t have the votes to repeal the tax cuts in 2010, before or after the midterms (vulnerable Democrats on the ballot in 2010 were nervous about forcing the issue before Election Day). So he punted until the end of 2012 when, if he won re-election, he would regain the whip hand.
And the agreement was critical to winning that re-election. The extension of tax cuts and unemployment benefits amounted to about $300 billion of additional economic stimulus. In 2012, GDP growth in the first and second quarters, the quarters that election modelers believe have the greatest impact on the presidential outcome, were a middling 2.0 and 1.3 percent, respectively. Without extra stimulus, the economy could have stalled out or tipped back into recession just before the election, destroying Obama’s chances.
Instead, Obama became first Democrat to win consecutive popular vote majorities since FDR. And his first order of business was to finish what he started two years prior.
He dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to hash out an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s desire to hold out for more). The final deal, largely repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, created a tax code that the New York Times said could be “by some measures … the most progressive in a generation.” And nearly every Senate Republican, and one-third of House Republicans, voted for it.
The other underappreciated bipartisan success is one that neither party likes to talk about: the across-the-board budget cuts known as “the sequester.”
The sequester happened as an outgrowth of a 2011 budget deal signed after House Republicans threatened to force an economically dangerous default on the national debt unless spending was deeply cut. Obama and then-Speaker John Boehner tried to work out a “grand bargain” – involving changes to entitlement programs and the tax code -- to resolve the impasse, but failed. The finger-pointing on both sides remains to this day.
What was agreed upon was the “super-committee” – a bipartisan task force designed to come up with a deficit reduction plan worth $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Otherwise, the sequester would chop domestic and military spending equally to achieve a similar result. In other words, the deficit would be shrunk, either the easy way or the hard way.
They did it the hard way. The super-committee was gridlocked. The sequester came down. And the budget was cut. While a subsequent 2013 budget deal somewhat loosened the sequester caps, the trajectory of the annual budget deficit is sharply down from the days of the stimulus: from 9.8 percent of the gross domestic product in 2009 to 3.2 percent in 2016. That’s the exact number (after rounding down) Obama set in 2010 as his ultimate goal.
Obama will take credit for the statistic, but he, like everyone else in Washington, ran as far from the sequester as possible. No one wanted to admit that both parties came together to design the mechanism for ham-fisted cuts that made so many constituencies squeal.
Furthermore, many on the left and right aren’t thrilled with the result. Budget hawks scoff at the reduced annual budget deficit because they are fixated on high levels of accumulated debt. Keynesians lament that Obama didn’t keep his foot on the economic gas pedal. But put aside the economic debate. It’s an indisputable fact that Obama achieved the goal he set via bipartisan negotiation and compromise, even if no one will cop to how it happened.
Bipartisanship is not an end to itself. The sequester is not inherently better than Obamacare – which also contributed to the lower deficits -- because it was created with Republican votes. Obama had no obligation to tie his own hands on pressing issues like climate change, immigration and Iran’s nuclear program when Republicans steadfastly opposed him.
However, without overwhelming partisan supermajorities, a degree of bipartisanship is simply necessary to govern. Obama understood it, ignored the naysayers, and faced up to the challenge.
Our politics may be broken, with an electorate so polarized that there is little to be gained by constructively engaging the opposing party and forging difficult compromises. But the governing structure designed by our Founders is not. Obama proved time and time again that bipartisan policymaking is still feasible within the framework of the Constitution. He just could have used more members of Congress who were willing to admit it.