Obama on His Heels

Column: How the president fell for the mandate myth

March 8, 2013

In January, pretty much all of respectable Washington had a sense of where President Barack Obama’s second term was headed. His approval ratings were sky high. His liberalism was pure and untroubled by thoughts of post-partisanship. His second-term agenda of immigration reform, gun control, climate change, and tax reform was clear. He would roll over the opposition. The dawn of a liberal age—a permanent majority, perhaps—was at hand. Stinking Republicans? Obama didn’t need them.

The president, wrote Politico’s Glenn Thrush, had "a new mandate—achieving bipartisan results through force, not conciliation." Obama was "armed with an approval rating in the 50s." He had "decided the only way he can defeat hill Republicans is to muster public opinion against them."

John Dickerson of Slate and CBS News wrote, "Obama’s gambit in 2009 was to build a new post-partisan consensus. That didn’t work." The president would have to go around the Republicans because "they cannot be unchained by schmoozing."

Thus Obama’s aggressive strategy: "The president who came into office speaking in lofty terms about bipartisanship and cooperation can only cement his legacy if he destroys the GOP." The countdown to Republican destruction had begun.

And the countdown stopped on March 1, when Obama entered the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House and acknowledged that the automatic cuts to discretionary spending, also known as the "sequester," would take effect. The administration had spent the previous weeks attempting to force the Republicans into accepting tax increases as part of a deal to delay or replace the sequester by hyping its devastating effects. Teachers would be fired, airport lines would extend for blocks, and illegal aliens would run rampant in the streets. Or so we were told.

The sequester has yet to cause tremendous panic and consternation anywhere but in the executive branch, the congressional Democratic caucus, and, needless to say, MSNBC. And suddenly those Republicans for whom the president had no use, the old out-of-touch white men who were on their way to the dustbin of history, became bizarrely relevant. On Wednesday Obama invited Republican senators, including his old nemesis John McCain, to dinner at the Jefferson Hotel. On Thursday, Paul Ryan lunched at the White House.

What happened? Well, it may be that the president’s approval rating has been steadily sinking. It may be that economic growth is at a standstill despite the record performance of the Dow. It may be that the administration has found itself on defense on questions of civil liberties and campaign finance.

But I think the larger problem is that Obama, like reelected presidents before him, bought into the myth of the mandate. He over-interpreted the results of a personal victory in a status-quo election. Winning tax increases as part of the fiscal cliff deal boosted his already ridiculously oversized confidence. But he turned out to be wrong. And conservatives and Republicans might as well revel in this moment, before we figure out a way to spoil it.

"The American people do not give mandates," Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina notes in an article in the current American Interest, "America’s Missing Moderates." "They hire parties provisionally and grant them a probationary period to prove their worth. A major electoral victory by the out party generally says no more than ‘for heaven’s sake, do something different.’" Such was the case in 2006, 2008, and 2010.

A victory by the incumbent party is less easy to interpret. President George W. Bush won reelection by 51 percent in 2004, but his "political capital" vanished as he moved to privatize Social Security and failed to secure Iraq. Obama won with 51 percent in 2012. His political capital seems to be diminishing quickly, as well.

Immigration? Foolish Republicans seem to want to pass something as much as the president does. But issues of guest workers and amnesty for illegal immigrants continue to prevent a compromise. And the release of illegal immigrant detainees by the Department of Homeland Security days before the sequester took effect is not likely to make that compromise any easier.

Gun control? Universal background checks and a reinstated assault weapons ban are languishing in the Senate and, despite public support, seem unlikely to overcome deep-seated opposition. What the advocates of gun control do not seem to understand is that, while they may have the support of the American public, that support is not deep—especially when compared with the intense opposition to regulations on the part of the gun lobby.

Climate change? Don’t hold your breath. Or maybe you should, to cut down on CO2 emissions.

Tax reform? Obama seems to have squeezed as much revenue from the Republicans as he could as part of the fiscal cliff deal. And while his strategy seems to be to squeeze yet more revenue out of them as part of the tax component of a "grand bargain," do we really expect the House Republicans to support such a bill? Do we really imagine John Boehner will suspend the Hastert Rule to raise taxes even further, when no global financial calamity will result from failure to pass a bill?

Obama recognizes the new reality. That is why he has undertaken his belated charm offensive. But I doubt it will work. He and Congress are likely to haggle over budget details while avoiding a government shutdown. Politics will be petty, as usual, but also relatively benign. Expect more Rand Paul theatrics.

"The status quo affirmed by the 2012 elections seems likely to persist for four more years," wrote Fiorina. "Events in the real world may force changes that will surprise us, but there is little in the internal dynamics of the current political situation to make the next four years much different from the past four."

The Republicans have their moment. They might as well enjoy it. While it lasts.