Obama's Tactics May Fail
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jan 25, 2013
In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama said that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton did not.” In his second inaugural address, President Obama makes his claim to be the “liberal Reagan.”
With the public still blaming Republicans for our economic troubles and gridlock in Washington, the GOP brand is toxic as only 26% of Americans approve of the party and 49% disapprove. This repudiation of the Republican Party potentially allows the president to create a new governing philosophy and institutional structures to make the Democrats the majority for a generation or two.
Reaching back to the Declaration of Independence, the president claims that the bedrock principle of the Founders was the claim that “all men are created equal” and that equality is the “guiding star” of American progress. Then in his brief history of American development, Obama connects the Founders to Lincoln’s desire to end slavery, efforts to grow the nation in the late 19th Century, TR’s Square Deal, Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedoms, and FDR’s New Deal to promote competition and economic fair play, to LBJ’s Great Society to fight poverty. Implicitly, he claims that universal health care, higher taxes on the rich, and his second term agenda is consistent with the Founder’s ideals and the American tradition.
He even claims that “preserving individual freedom ultimately requires collective action” to suggest that the struggle for equality should trump claims of personal freedom, the “guiding star” of conservatives. If the public accepts this claim, conservative efforts to oppose his agenda may fail.
Institutionally, the president seeks to consolidate the “coalition of the ascendant” (minorities, women, and the young) to the Democrats with equal pay, gay rights, immigration reform, voting rights, poverty alleviation, and climate change legislation.
Knowing that the GOP is the minority party nationally and must appeal to these groups, the president has chosen an aggressive, uncompromising strategy to force Republicans to move closer to his ideas.
However, the president’s ambitions face several obstacles. First, his legislative agenda is in trouble. Republicans have few short term incentives to cooperate because only 4 House Republicans represent districts that Obama won while there are 17 House and 7 Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2014 in districts and states that lean Republican who may not support his agenda.
Second, Obama’s strategy of using the public to force Congressional submission usually backfires as it does not allow both sides to claim victory. Moreover, taking strident public stands on issues means that if Obama compromises or loses, he looks weak.
Third, splits in the Democratic Party will emerge over spending priorities because there is insufficient revenue to fund everything Democrats want and the eventual economic necessity to reform entitlements will further divide Democrats.
Finally, the political environment currently favors Obama but the problems of implementing health care reform, the economic costs of regulating carbon dioxide, and the public's concern with large deficits and the debt means that he will be on the defensive through most of his term.
This appeared in the Jan. 25th edition of The Jackson Sun