President Obama’s handling of the debt ceiling crisis may ultimately turn out to be seen as political mastery, a symbolic point where the country shifted from a dissatisfaction with the Democrats to frustration with the way the tea party prevents the Republicans from pursuing the rational policies voters thought they’d get.
Right now Obama isn’t getting a lot of credit for how he handled this. Many Democrats compare Obama to past leaders and say he could have pushed the GOP harder. I do not share that assessment. Too much was on line, especially the nascent recovery that Obama will rely on to bolster his chances at re-election. A default, a shut down of much of the government to avoid default would do tremendous damage to the economy. Misuse of the 14th amendment would have started a constitutional crisis, severely damaging the economy and leading many to believe Obama was abusing power. Any of those scenarios would have destroyed the Obama Presidency.
If Obama were to have played this differently, he would have had to have done it starting last year. Perhaps even as late as May he could have framed the issue differently and forced an earlier decision. Even that might not have worked. Still, criticism of Obama has been rather muted compared to the anger at the tea party. That is the narrative coming out of this drama, not one of a weak Obama.
When the public and especially independents shifted to the right to vote in a Republican House, they did it for one reason: to force the two sides to compromise and work out solutions together. The country is moderate and pragmatic, even if the political activists are ideological and partisan. They thought the 111th Congress pushed too hard to secure the Democratic agenda, over reaching their mandate. But as the President said, people wanted divided government, not dysfunctional government.
President Obama comes out of this looking Presidential. He called for a balanced compromise on national TV. He then stayed aloof from the final negotiations once it was clear the “grand deal” of a $4 trillion mix of cuts and new revenues — a deal that would have been good for the economy — was rejected because the tea party cannot abide ANY tax increase.
He let Reid, Pelosi, McConnell and Boehner do most of the dirty work. He was criticized for not leading when he spent four days outside the public view making phone calls and having private meetings. Those saying he wasn’t leading have fallen victim to the idea that media presence = leadership. It appeared at one point Reid and Boehner were close to a deal that would have been worse for the Democrats, and a private meeting with Obama stiffened Reid’s spine. Boehner complained, but it was clear that Obama had set down markers that the Republicans could not pass. As blame grew on the GOP for turning down an historic compromise, Boehner realized he’d gotten all he could get.
The result — a compromise that does nothing, and doesn’t even start making cuts until 2013 — simply pushes the debate down the road. That is a victory for Obama. Moreover, it does not harm the economy going into 2012. The year the cuts could damage the recovery is 2013 — setting up a huge debate for the election. Not agreeing to any cuts would have assured bond downgrades and loss of investor confidence in the dollar, doing considerably more harm to the economy than spending cuts or tax increases would.
Congress is getting approval ratings lower than any time in history. Those on the right who were pointing to low approvals of the Pelosi House have gone silent; the GOP is no more popular. GOP candidates walk gingerly among the tea party brigades. Some like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman realize they’ll never win over the far right, they have to neutralize their strength. I suspect this fight has improved their chances. Moderate Republicans don’t oppose tax increases as part of the mix for debt reduction, and they certainly don’t approve of risking default over a principle. Many have been horrified by this spectacle and worry about the direction their party has taken.
I’m not predicting certain re-election for Obama, but the chance that it will be either Obama or a moderate Republican like Romney or Huntsman is greater than before. People like Bachmann will still rile up the party faithful. The Democrats may not take back the House, but strident tea partiers in unsafe districts face a good chance of losing — even Michelle Bachmann could lose.
In short, public disgust at this whole spectacle — not so much the result but the way in which it played itself out — is going to have political ramifications. The tea party has, as the saying goes, “jumped the shark.” They’ve peaked and over reached. In essence, Americans are becoming sick of the ‘politics of emotion.’ People are tired of angry rants, demonization, refusal to compromise, and mistaking rigidity for principle. We’ve got real problems, they want people to solve them. We’ve got real disagreements, they want people to compromise.
Whichever party can appear more adult, level with the American people, and show a capacity to compromise and reach out to the middle, will have the upper hand in 2012. President Obama played that role in this last crisis, making him the only one of the principles who could truly condemn the ‘manufactured crisis’ with credibility. John Boehner’s image was tarnished by both outbursts and bravado — bragging the Senate will “fold like cheap suit” while the country is heading to catastrophe doesn’t make him look very dignified.
Democrats may hope that this continues, and that the tea party divides and exerts undue control over the GOP. That would help the Democrats in 2012. But that would not be good for the country. Best for the country would be if the majority of Republicans who do not agree with the tea party stand up and reassert their power. I’d much rather the face of the GOP be Senator Olympia Snowe than Representative Michelle Bachmann! This country needs real debate and engagement of diverse ideas, not partisan war. With the public no longer as entertained by or fooled by the emotion-laden spectacle of Glenn Beck’s rants and tea party calls for revolution, it’s time to settle down and take a pragmatic approach to the problems facing the country.