In 2008, President Barack Obama campaigned on a message of hope and a promise of a new spirit of cooperation among lawmakers in Washington. Instead, while the American people have seen a modest rebound in the economy and a military pullback in the Middle East, gridlock on Capitol Hill seems as bad as ever and growing worse.
As Obama takes the oath of office for a second term, the question remains one of whether he can fulfill the promises that led to his historic election in 2008.
The signs are not good. Nearly as soon as Obama, a Democrat, was declared victorious over his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the news focus turned to the “fiscal cliff,” a looming financial Armageddon that would have devastated the national economy were it not addressed.
Lest ye forget, the “fiscal cliff’ involved extending tax cuts which were to expire as of January 1, and making provisions for massive federal spending cuts that were set up by the failure of a Congressional “super committee” to come to agreeable terms after the 2011 debt ceiling fight.
So, with nearly two months for lawmakers to tackle the combination of tax increases and spending cuts, and with the election out of the way, it would seem to be an urgent and easy task to accomplish. But that was not the case.
Instead, negotiations and accusations dragged on until the deadline passed, at which time the Republican controlled House finally agreed to extend tax cuts and maintain spending at its current levels. Lawmakers will look at restoring spending in the coming months.
Add to this a new round of debt ceiling discussions that need to take precedence because the country is once again ready to exceed its credit limit. So much for a new spirit of bipartisanship in Washington.
While the President has appeared willing to accept ideas forwarded by Republican leadership in the House and Senate, Republican “Tea Partyers” have demonstrated little stomach for compromise. In fact, these political suicide bombers seem perfectly happy in the role of contrarians, merrily obstructing any plan that goes in opposition of what they believe they were elected to do.
Numerous examples of this attitude were on display in the summer of 2011, when Capitol Hill was in the throes of the last debt ceiling crisis.
During that time, President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner were in constant contact, negotiating a means to end the gridlock. Press conferences were held, agreements in principle announced and then Boehner would be blindsided by his contingent of freshman Congressmen, who staunchly stood firm and refused to agree to any increase in the debt ceiling.
To his credit Obama remained flexible, and sought a middle ground, while Boehner did his best to rein in his band of rebels. The Speaker pulled out all the usual tricks in hoping to get compliance, plum committee assignments, pork projects and promises of consideration down the road, all to no avail.
This was all in Obama’s first term, and as he sets off on his second term it appears little has changed. The balance of power in the Capitol remains the same, as do many of the issues.
Yes the economy is improving, so there is no need for a massive stimulus package. The banks and auto manufacturers have settled into a post-recession feeling of growth. However, job creation and rebuilding America’s economy remains an important need.
Obamacare is still hotly debated, and court battles loom. Ultimately, the Supreme Court may wind up deciding which parts of that signature legislation will stand for posterity. On top of these simmering political debates, Obama is pressing some new issues for his second term.
In the wake of the school shootings in Connecticut, his agenda now includes a huge push for gun control legislation, and revamping the nation’s immigration laws. Obama has already drawn criticism for his gun proposals from Second Amendment advocates like the NRA and others. Predictably, Capitol Hill Republicans have taken a stance against many of the proposals, citing the always popular “slippery slope” to dismantling the Constitution.
Immigration reform is another hot topic that will almost certainly result in more animosity between the parties. Democrats, who generally rely heavily on minority voters, would like to liberalize immigration laws to allow more a smoother path to citizenship. On the other hand, Republicans, viewing themselves as protectors of America, will likely want to build a figurative protectionist wall around the country.
And not to just focus on internal needs, Obama still has serious foreign policy items to handle. The war is Iraq is over, and troops will be out of Afghanistan next year, but the Middle East remains a hotbed of volatility.
Israel and Hamas continue bouts of on again-off again aggression which constantly add tension in that region. Iran also remains a troubling country, as it seems that nation is working toward creating its own nuclear weapons program. So while Obama attempts to traverse minefields on Capitol Hill, he will also be tested to show his mettle around the world.
Another issue likely to come to the surface is what to do with a bloated military in the absence of war being waged on foreign soil. Defense spending is often a tender point, even in the best of times, but with the country in dire need of budget trimming, the military looks like a good place to start. That is if he’s looking for another battle with Republicans, who are more inclined to cut entitlements like Social Security, or Medicare and Medicaid.
With all of these stark realities as a backdrop, hope all you want. But, remember that the President can only lead willing followers, and as long as there remains an ideological divide between the President and the loyal opposition, gridlock is likely to be the word of the day for the next four years.