How Obama can buck Congress
The balance of power in Congress is the same, but the president can still succeed.

White House/Chuck Kennedy

President Barack Obama addresses a Joint Session of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Sept. 8, 2011.

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    It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism
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Article Highlights

  • The balance of power in Congress is the same, but the president can still succeed.

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  • American voters have long been demoralized over the sluggish economy and unhappy at America's dysfunctional politics.

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  • Americans have difficulty pinpointing blame for our political dysfunction and have no way to hold parties accountable.

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  • The theme of #election2012 is status quo — and that means the status quo of tribal, take-no-prisoners politics.

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American voters have long been demoralized over the sluggish economy and even more unhappy, indeed angry, at America's dysfunctional politics. Now they have taken those emotions to the polls — and reaffirmed the status quo, with a second term for President Obama, a continuing Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House.As Saturday Night Live's Kenan Thompson might say, "What's up with that?"

The answer, in part, is that voters spoke volumes in the presidential and Senate elections: a near-landslide electoral vote for Obama and a stunning two-seat gain in the Senate for Democrats, who had to defend 23 seats to only 10 for the Republicans.

In the House, there were reasons for a different outcome, based mostly on a geographical concentration of like-minded voters that protects most seats from a general election challenge. In addition, after the 2010 elections, Republicans were able to reshape districts to protect many of their vulnerable Tea Party freshmen.

But that is too easy an explanation. What is also true is that Americans are having some difficulty pinpointing blame for our political dysfunction and do not have a surefire way of holding the parties accountable. No wonder voters are confused enough to bring back the status quo.

What's the next step?

Where do we go from here? The challenge is an immediate one, with the lame-duck 112th Congress set to return next week to wrap up unfinished business and to deal with the biggest immediate question facing the country: what to do about the "fiscal cliff"? At stake is the expiration of nearly almost every tax cut enacted since 2001 at the end of the year, meaning a massive tax increase starting Jan. 1, and a set of mindless and destructive across-the-board spending cuts in domestic and defense programs starting the same time.

The statements thus far are less open to problem-solving and instead invite more of the same. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's post-election statement did not even acknowledge the president's sweeping victory or the setback his party suffered in the Senate.

House Speaker John Boehner acknowledged the need for new revenue, while offering a more mild reaction, but clung to the position that lower marginal rates should be a part of the package.

But even with the rhetoric, there is reason to be cautiously hopeful. In the Senate, there are many incipient GOP problem-solvers — people such as Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — who range from center-right to right-right and who are tired of voting no on everything. Many have joined with Democratic counterparts in an effort to avert the fiscal cliff and take a major step toward solving the debt crisis. It is possible that they will have a bill ready to go in a matter of weeks, and get 65 or more votes for it in the Senate.

House presents problem

But the House will be a bigger challenge. The House elections brought more polarization, if that is possible. More than 90% of House Republicans have signed the Grover Norquist no-taxes pledge, which if it sticks makes any kind of debt reduction deal, or resolution of the fiscal cliff, impossible.

The challenge for Obama will be to use his election victory and its momentum to go to the public and make it clear where the blame for gridlock really lies — a case that would be reinforced big time if there is a supermajority for reform in the Senate. That might work to bring a bill to the House floor that can pass with as many Democrats as Republicans.

And if it doesn't get considered, Obama has the traction now to tell Republicans, "If you insist on eschewing any real compromise and going over the cliff at the end of the year, I promise you that on Jan. 1, I will propose one of the biggest tax cuts in American history — for all except 1%." That, plus a near-certain adverse reaction in the markets to failure, would likely do the trick.

The challenges of governing go beyond fiscal issues, of course. Here, too, there is reason to be hopeful. The assertive posture by Republican leaders such as Jeb Bush and Sens. Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham that the GOP has to broaden its base could give Obama an opening to pursue bipartisan immigration reform.

There also might be a coalition for bold tax reform as part of a package to raise revenues. The business community will join with Obama to pursue a larger infrastructure program, especially to build a new power network, and will find Republican allies.

The theme of this election, to be sure, is status quo — and unfortunately, that means the status quo in terms of tribal, take-no-prisoners politics. But this time, it might be possible, at least in a few areas, to turn polarized lemons into lemonade.

Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, are co-authors of It's Even Worse Than It Looks.

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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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