So it’s ironic, to say the least, that the first defining moment of the Obama regime happens to revolve around matters macroeconomic—dealing not just with a nasty and potentially prolonged downturn, but with a wrenching, epochal crisis of capitalism on a global scale. Like all such traumas, this one offers an opportunity for genuine greatness. But it poses a severe test of his mettle from the moment he removes his hand from that Lincoln Bible with which he’s being sworn in.
And even before that! In his first full week in Washington as president-elect, Obama was consumed with previewing his stimulus package—and absorbing rebukes to it from his nominal allies. The criticisms were not vicious, to be sure, but they were both substantive and political. Their issuers ranged from congressional Democrats (Tom Harkin, John Kerry) to lefty intellectuals (Paul Krugman, Josh Marshall). On substance, the core complaint was with the ratio of tax cuts (too high) to public investment. On the politics, they were myriad: that Obama was being too solicitous of GOP support; that he was “ceding the initiative to Congress, which is odd since he’s immensely popular and Congress is wildly unpopular,” as Marshall put it; and so on.
That Obama has taken more lumps from liberals than conservatives is telling—and may foreshadow a persistent dynamic in his administration. For some, the size of the tax cuts in the plan confirmed that he is a closet centrist. Others, however, saw a different culprit afoot. “They’re scared of the Senate, they’re scared about the filibuster, they’re scared that the Republicans will keep them from getting shit done, and that they’ll wind up with a failed presidency,” says a prominent Democratic strategist.
Obama’s extraordinary degree of political security frees him from kowtowing to either the left or the right. He can redefine the party on his own terms.
There may be some truth to that—Obama and his gang are pretty sharp when it comes to arithmetic—but I suspect something deeper is going on here. Somethings, really. The situation that Obama confronts in Congress is more complex than the solid Democratic majorities on both sides of the Hill suggest. Much of what’s been going on looks like institutional chest-puffing, as senators seek to convince Obama (and themselves) that they are still at least mildly relevant in the face of the phenom that is the president-elect. (Consider this plaintive quote from Max Baucus the other day: “Senators are senators; they’ve got ideas, too.”) Making this stress worse is that, until two months ago, most of these preening grandees were senior to Obama and that none of them has ever lived under the rule of a president elected from their ranks.
Obama has seen up close (courtesy of Bush) what happens to a majority party when the president runs roughshod over Congress as a matter of course. His campaign was premised on a theory of change that rejected the notion that constant, witless, all-out warfare is inevitable. He believes in the big table, in the possibility of “disagreeing without being disagreeable,” of bridging divisions both between the two parties and, by implication, within them, too.
Wishful thinking? Maybe. But Obama’s new approach is more than that. The tax cuts in Obama’s stimulus proposal are likely to command support outside Washington from voters of many stripes; with an eye to his network and the pressure it can wield, he is crafting a plan that appeals to what the Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore has dubbed “grassroots bi-partisanship.” As he did in his campaign, in other words, he is working politics from the outside in rather than the other way around.
He is also looking down the road at the other items on his protean agenda. Soon Obama will be turning to health-care reform, energy reform, and, apparently, entitlement reform. As Pat Moynihan was fond of pointing out, these are not the kinds of votes you win 51-49; epic legislation acquires an epic margin or it fails. Obama understands that to be the kind of president he aspires to be requires building coalitions on a grander scale than most occupants of the Oval Office ever have within their reach—and thinking of, planning on, a two-term window in order to get it done.
That time horizon is based on more than sheer self-confidence or grandiosity, however. Not long ago, a Republican guru of my acquaintance was brooding on who might be his party’s nominee in 2012—and questioning the sanity of anyone who’d want to be. “To run against Obama, you’re going to have to raise $1 billion,” he marveled. “Who in their right mind would want to try and do that to run against an incumbent president?”
Financial disadvantage, however, may be the least of the impairments that Obama has inflicted on the GOP. For more than 40 years, the Republican Party’s success was premised on the Southern Strategy, which exploited racial anxiety to cleave the “solid South” away from the Democrats. But as Rosenberg observes, “Obama’s election is the ultimate repudiation of the Southern Strategy. It has left the Republicans totally decimated; I don’t think they’ve been this far out of sync ideologically with the American people since the thirties.”