Maybe we’re just more used to changes in control of the House of Representatives than we were in 1994. Bill Clinton seemed to spend months knocked back on his heels after the Democratic defeat that November. But Barack Obama has not exactly been reeling.
If anything, he seems to have found his lost groove. He’s getting deals done (on taxes, arms control, gays in the military). He’s garnering praise from Republicans, of all people (for the tax deal, for dropping his 2011 withdrawal timetable for Afghanistan, for his repudiation of liberal attempts to pin the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on conservative hate speech). And he’s evidently winning some support back from the independents who deserted him and his party in November, with an uptick in his job approval ratings.
The conciliatory comeback seems to have defied expectations on both sides of the aisle. Many Republicans, convinced that Obama is a liberal ideologue if not a radical at heart, expected confrontation on a grand scale from now through the 2012 election: Obama would be obdurate in opposing anything Republicans proposed, and vice versa. The clash would turn the next presidential contest into a referendum on whether Republicans were a bunch of do-nothing naysayers or whether Obama was too liberal for the American electorate. Many on the left welcomed the same prospect: an Obama who would stand up and fight on principle—for their principles.
Republicans clearly learned something from the experience of 1995-96, when Bill Clinton staged his greatest comeback at their expense, and from observing their opponents in 2007-2010: If you engage in the politics of triumphalism, you will end up biting your own neck. Nevertheless, the last thing they expected was a conciliatory Obama, and in fact many of them couldn’t believe that’s what greeted them in the lame-duck session. When Obama quickly acceded to GOP demands that the Bush-era income tax rates not increase even for the highest earners, and agreed to a partial payroll-tax holiday to boot, some conservatives thought he must be pulling a fast one, tricking Republicans into agreeing to a second massive “stimulus.” It was an argument the White House tried without success to deploy to calm the furor among liberal Democrats, who understood Obama’s move as a cave to his opponents, pure and simple.
So is Obama now eagerly selling out his party base and cutting deals with Republicans to try to keep himself viable with an electorate that has taken a sharp right turn? Or is he trying to reinvent himself as a post-partisan voice between and above political extremes on the right and left? Or is his political strategy to shift his emphasis from big-ticket policy moves like health care reform and cap and trade to an incrementalist approach of working for small changes in the right (that is, left) direction? Or is he simply the smartest man alive, luring his opponents into some ultimate trap?
Underlying such questions is the assumption that the best place to start the analysis is with the political grand strategy of the White House. That’s probably not a very good assumption. On the contrary, political strategy, if it’s going to be any good, depends first on an accurate assessment of where political power lies. There are certain basic facts that have a huge impact on outcomes.
Everybody knows that John Boehner is the new speaker of the House. This is supposed to make life more difficult for President Obama. Somewhat underappreciated, however, is the fact that Nancy Pelosi is no longer speaker of the House, and that in certain key respects this has made life much easier for Obama.
This has little to do with the personalities of Pelosi and Obama, and everything to do with the architecture of power in the American political system. Simply put, the interests of the president and the House speaker are not the same even if they come from the same party. And it is extremely difficult for a party to be simultaneously a “presidential” party organized around occupancy of the White House and a “congressional” party organized around a House majority.
To be elected president, you either work from your party base to the center in order to reach the magical 50 percent-plus-one voter, or you can risk ditching part of your base in order to broaden your appeal. In 2008, Obama pulled off the neat trick of keeping his base intact while reaching well past the median voter.
To be elected House speaker, on the other hand, you have to appeal above all to the interests of the congressional majority. It therefore goes pretty much without saying that the leader of Democrats in the House is going to be substantially more liberal than any Democratic president has advertised himself while campaigning.
Nancy Pelosi was an effective speaker, in the sense that she got things done and retained the trust of her caucus—sufficiently so that they were unwilling to ditch her even after the party’s epic loss in November. Pelosi as speaker was a hugely powerful figure in shaping outcomes in Washington; as minority leader, she simply is not.
Pelosi will still maintain some of the trappings of her former august station. She will still get invited to all the good meetings at the White House. She can be helpful to Obama by carrying his message to House Democrats and by refraining from opposing the White House despite her ideological leanings; an open rift between the minority leader and the White House makes for very ugly intra-party politics. But in 2009-2010, if Obama wanted to get anything done on Capitol Hill, he needed Pelosi, and he had the choice of either respecting the wishes of her caucus, or of provoking a confrontation that would split the party. Obama chose to accommodate.
A president makes such a choice in the knowledge that the Senate exerts a moderating influence on the passions of the House. Bills that pass the House en route to the Senate set a partisan benchmark; they rarely set the major terms of the final outcome. Unfortunately, the White House tends to end up associated with the more extreme partisan views of the House majority.
Accommodation with Pelosi pulled Obama away from the center he once commanded. Obama paid a price for this in the sharp drop in his approval ratings and then in his party’s loss of control of the House.
Did the Democrats “overreach”? Well, what goes by the name of “overreaching” is mostly the logic of the political process at work, albeit accompanied by extravagant rhetoric as well as after-the-fact rationalization to make the outcome appear to result from an overarching “political strategy.” It is, in fact, difficult not to overreach in such circumstances. It requires calculation, political will, and a stomach for intra-party conflict.
The political logic has changed. Republican control of the House not only liberates Obama from the leftward tug that was costing him dearly. It also pushes outcomes in the direction he needs to move in order to regain support in the center.
Now it looks like the White House is gearing up for an emphasis on deficit reduction. That makes sense in the current political environment, not so much in order to placate the Tea Party but because Obama can find common ground with House Republicans on the issue to the extent he is willing to tolerate spending cuts. House Democrats, meanwhile, will stew in the juices of powerlessness.
Obama owes liberal Democrats one large commitment: preventing the repeal of health care reform, the hill for which the majority sacrificed itself. He has the power to do exactly that through 2013. And now that Nancy Pelosi is sidelined, maybe until 2017.