Obama's Grim Future of Stalemate

The one constant in American politics over the past decade has been change--as in the public's restless and angry desire to change what is going on in Washington. This steaming unhappiness led in 2006 to voters throttling the Bush Republicans, costing them the majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate. The anger only intensified in 2008, enabling Barack Obama to vault to a landslide victory.

Now again change is in the air. This time, however, it will not lead to a wave of legislation as after 2008, but the reverse. Whether the Republicans recapture majorities in both houses, or just regain the House, their confrontational approach presages deadlock and even more brutish politics.

Their resurgence has been fuelled by rallying around the rightwing base, and not moving to the middle and working with the president--witness the failure of a single Republican member of the House to vote for Mr Obama's economic stimulus package, when the economy was on the brink of the abyss. The strategy worked brilliantly, enhanced by a broad populist rage fuelled by the economic collapse.

This was the successful strategy of the then-insurgent Newt Gingrich in 1994 two years into Bill Clinton's first term, when Republicans surged into power in both houses for the first time in 40 years. Now, with an even harsher political climate, it will work again. Any inclination of Republican congressional leaders to compromise will be resisted by the Tea Party acolytes who will be swept into office, many running against the establishments of both parties.

The last few moderate Republicans have watched as soulmates have been denied renomination by conservative voters unhappy because they dared to work with Democrats and voted for Tarp, the bank bail-out. After two years of rancorous politics accompanied by robust if partisan legislating, Mr Obama faces stalemate on Capitol Hill. He will turn to the use of executive power, through regulatory agencies and executive orders, leading to more confrontation with Congress and the Supreme Court.

But while most Republicans are for free trade, Mr Obama would have to take on unions and liberal Democrats, when he most needs their backing.

As for the Bush tax cuts which are due to expire at the end of the year, the Obama compromise--keep them for those making less than $250,000, end them for those above that level--was rejected by Republicans, who have demanded the permanent extension of all of them. Democrats were unable to get their own lawmakers to agree even to take a vote before they adjourned for the election, on a compromise to extend the tax cuts on the over-250 group for a year or two, while making the rest permanent.

That compromise will no doubt be on the table when Congress returns after the election for a brief end-of-term sitting, before the new, more Republican one convenes in January, but conservatives have already mounted a campaign to discredit the anticipated lame-duck session. A delay would mean all the tax cuts would expire on January 1 before the new Congress convenes, at a bad time for a struggling economy, and with no likelihood of a quick resolution.

The Republicans' scorched earth approach may face a challenge from the president's deficit and debt commission, where refreshingly, Democrats and Republicans are inching toward a call for fiscal restraint built on a combination of spending restrictions, and on plugging tax loopholes and restricting tax expenditures. But the likelihood of Tea Party Republicans embracing a plan with tax rises, much less embattled Democrats accepting the idea of further trims in entitlement spending, remains slim.

A feisty Tea Party-driven majority will have other plans to hamstring Mr Obama. The first is to reverse the Obama health reform plan by cutting off funding on Medicare and trying to repeal key portions, including the cutbacks in spending required to make the bill fiscally sound. The second is to flood the White House with subpoenas to investigate scandals, whether real, exaggerated or imagined.

The former would lead to vetoes and a likely shutdown of government, in a replay of the stand-off in 1995 between the then House speaker Mr Gingrich and Mr Clinton. This time Republicans will look to hold the line and not cave in as Mr Gingrich did. The latter tactic, a replay of the Clinton years, would tie up White House staff retrieving documents to rebut charges, while cabinet members would spend weeks testifying before hostile congressional committees.

Is there an area, then, where congressional Republicans and Mr Obama could find common ground? One may be trade, with a possibility that the long-stalled free-trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia might finally be adopted. But while most Republicans are for free trade, Mr Obama would have to take on unions and liberal Democrats, when he most needs their backing.

Over 100 former members of Congress from both parties recently wrote an open letter calling for more bipartisanship and civility in Washington. Don't hold your breath.

Norm Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo Credit:iStockphoto/Anant Dummai

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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    Email: nornstein@aei.org
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