Saturday, April 21, 2012

Obama moved 'from hope to hardball' last September

Cheering Obama's turn to partisan combat, Noam Scheiber draws some striking parallels between the political trajectories of the Clinton and Obama presidencies -- starting with a hope for bipartisanship, going through the meat-grinder of passing key legislation with zero Republican support, getting creamed in the midterms. But then he moves to a false -- or rather, distorted -- contrast:
The major difference between the two after the midterms was their posture toward Republicans. Clinton went for the jugular early. By August of 1995, he had launched a major ad campaign attacking the Republican Congress for its designs on Medicare and vowing to defend the program from $270 billion in cuts. Almost daily beginning in late 1995, Clinton and his surrogates repeated their mantra of protecting “Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment”—that is, the programs Republicans threatened to decimate. The White House even had a nickname for the refrain: “M2E2.” “It wasn’t elegant—I wouldn’t etch it in marble. But people fucking knew what was at stake,” recalls Paul Begala, a former Clinton strategist. When Bob Dole emerged as the Republican presidential nominee the following spring, he had little hope of separating himself from his party’s government-slashing ethos.

Obama, on the other hand, spent more of his third year striking conciliatory notes as he negotiated with the GOP over the deficit. With the exception of a tough, high-profile speech that April, his White House consciously avoided flaying Republicans over their proposed cuts to Medicaid and Medicare. He didn’t dwell on their anti-government nihilism until a speech in December, and even then he did so in broad strokes.

The relative civility came to a clear end this month, however, when Obama turned up at an Associated Press luncheon and proceeded to lacerate the GOP over the handiwork of Representative Paul Ryan, whose budget proposal the House had recently passed. Obama talked, Clinton-style, about how the Ryan budget would squeeze seniors who depend on Medicare and bump as many as 19 million poor and disabled Americans off Medicaid.
It's true that in the wake of the 2010 midterms, Obama frustrated supporters with extended bouts of attempted bipartisanship, in which periods he directed his criticism at "Congress" rather than Republicans. But Scheiber's contrast is exaggerated by an elision and a distortion. The elision: Clinton "went for the jugular early. By August 1995...."  August '95 was eight months after the midterms, and Clinton's budget battle with the GOP House and Senate was just moving into high gear. The distortion: Obama did soft-pedal criticism of the GOP through the ill-advised debt ceiling-deadlined budget negotiations that ended in the Budget Control Act agreed upon in early August. But he pivoted to partisan combat a month later, on Labor Day, when for the first time in months he pitted himself directly against the GOP rather than "Congress." Previewing the jobs package he unveiled later that week -- a set of stimulative measures designed to heighten contrast between the parties, he challenged the GOP directly:
We’re going to see if we’ve got some straight shooters in Congress.  We’re going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party.  (Applause.)  We’ll give them a plan, and then we’ll say, do you want to create jobs?  Then put our construction workers back to work rebuilding America.  (Applause.)  Do you want to help our companies succeed?  Open up new markets for them to sell their products.  You want -- you say you’re the party of tax cuts?  Well then, prove you’ll fight just as hard for tax cuts for middle-class families as you do for oil companies and the most affluent Americans.  (Applause.)  Show us what you got.  (Applause.)
He hit Republicans all through last fall, and it was not at all perfunctory, or in broad strokes. I know, because I followed the transition closely, with some glee, as did Jonathan Cohn, Greg Sargent, Steve Benen and many others. On September 19, unveiling his deficit reduction package, he called out Boehner directly for refusing to consider any tax increases: "So the Speaker says we can’t have it "my way or the highway," and then basically says, my way -- or the highway. That’s not smart. It’s not right. If we’re going to meet our responsibilities, we have to do it together." Calling for tax reform, he presaged the Buffett Rule in the same speech.  On September 22, he stood on a crumbling bridge linking Boehner's and McConnell's districts and challenged them: "Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge. Help us rebuild America. Help us put construction workers back to work. Pass this bill."   Has Scheiber forgotten "you should pass this bill" and "we can't wait" and the expertly applied pressure that forced the  Republicans to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits in two stages, in December '11 and February this year? 

There was a difference in the rhythm of Clinton's and Obama's political warfare between their respective midterms and reelection campaigns, driven mainly by Obama's decision to accept the debt ceiling deadline as "a unique opportunity to do something big" and get the partisan warfare defused by August 1. Clinton's contest was more gradual; he was more consistent in his response to GOP budget-cutting demands, and the battle didn't come to a head until the winter of '95-'96, when Republicans ended two government shutdowns without getting the extreme cuts they were demanding.  But Obama's shift to combat mode occurred about seven months earlier than Scheiber suggests.

1 comment:

  1. good post. enjoy you outlining the process of the President.