Obama can't have his bipartisan cake and eat it too

Business Times - 18 Feb 2009

Obama can't have his bipartisan cake and eat it too


DURING the 2008 election campaign, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama pledged that as president he would usher in a new era of 'post-partisan' politics in Washington.

This was seen as a commitment by the young and change-oriented Mr Obama to bridge the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans by, not only bringing members of the opposition party into his cabinet, but also by fashioning a legislative and policy strategy that would be acceptable to the majority of Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

Many Americans shared Mr Obama's revulsion over the partisan gridlock in Washington that makes it difficult to pass critical legislation on Capitol Hill, and as a result, constrains the ability of the White House and Congress to reach compromises on hard choices that are necessary to reform the American political and economic systems. For example, Democratic former president Bill Clinton and a Republican-dominated Congress failed to come to an agreement on a universal healthcare plan.

But many Washington observers reacted to Mr Obama's post-partisan political appeal with certain scepticism. They noted that all of the US presidents in the modern era, including those who ended up being politically divisive and controversial, like Richard Nixon and George W Bush, had run for office promising to remake American politics and produce a sense of national unity.

After entering the White House and the short political honeymoon, almost all of them discovered to their chagrin that as they tried to promote vital domestic and foreign policies and/or protect their own political status (recall the Republicans' attempts to impeach former president Clinton), they are left with no other choice but to engage in fierce and even nasty political and legislative battles with members of the opposition party.

Moreover, there was a contradiction between Mr Obama's post-partisan pledge - and his commitment to a dramatic transformation in American economic policies. He made it clear during the campaign that he intended to reverse much of the free market approach that has been embraced since Republican Ronald Reagan. He intended to take major steps in expanding the power of the government in the economic arena.

Did Mr Obama really expect Republican lawmakers, including some who had taken a leading part in Mr Reagan's laissez faire revolution, to be so impressed by his post-partisan promise so as to go through instant political-ideological metamorphosis - renouncing Milton Friedman's 'let's deregulate the financial markets' monetarist philosophy and embracing John Maynard Keynes as their new economic guru?

Hence, it was not really surprising that Republican senator Judd Gregg decided not to join the Obama Cabinet as a commerce secretary - a top economic policy job. What was really astonishing is that Mr Gregg, a long-time fiscal conservative would even consider the idea of becoming a member of the administration that is going to preside over what could turn out to be the largest government spending programme in American history and is expected to raise the federal deficit into the stratosphere.

It is also important to remember that most members of the House of Representatives are elected from districts that are either 'safe' for either Democrats or Republicans, which means that the main electoral threat that confronts an incumbent lawmaker is from members of his own party during the early primary votes.

That Mr Obama's stimulus package failed to win even one Republican vote in the House is a reflection of that electoral reality. Your average incumbent Republican lawmaker was concerned that if he had voted for the stimulus bill, he would face a conservative Republican challenger in his district during the 2010 mid-term Congressional elections who would accuse him of 'selling out' to the 'liberal Democrats'.

Similarly, most of the Republican senators who had opposed the stimulus bill represent very 'red' states that voted against Mr Obama in 2008. The strong ideological orientation of the Republicans combined with their electoral interest make it less likely that they will unite with the Democrats in support of the Obama Revolution.

In fact, Mr Obama should recognise that if anything, working with the opposition in trying to fashion bipartisanship agenda only leads to compromises and produces 'incrementalism', with both parties being forced to sacrifice important policies for only modest steps forward.

If Mr Obama wants to take big steps forward, he will have to revert to a partisan mode. He can have a revolution and or he can attempt post-partisanship politics. But not both.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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