How Executive Hubris Trumps Bipartisan Reform Efforts

During their respective time in office, both Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton asserted their believe that legislation stood a greater chance of succeeding if no one cared who took the credit. Ronald Reagan believed this so strongly, that he had the words inscribed on a plaque that he kept on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. (Replicas are available for purchase at the Reagan Library). Bill Clinton, speaking in reference to reducing the national dept, stating the approach explicitly in his first State of the Union address. Much has changed in the ensuing years.  Now, in 2013, it appears that the Obama Administration has inverted this sentiment and would rather see legislation fail if it can’t be covered in all of the glory and receive all of the credit. If this is not the explicit approach being adopted by the Obama Administration, then the Congressional Liaison staff is going out of their way to make it appear so.

Over the past four years relations between the White House and Congress have been testy at best, even when Democrats controlled both houses with a super majority in the Senate. The situation deteriorated sharply following the 2010 mid-term elections and a federal budget has not been passed since. Any hopes that a new era would emerge following the 2012 election cycle have vanished, as both Republicans and Democrats have clung to their respective mandates as reason to continue to obstruct and delay for at least the next two years. Whilst flaws exist on both sides, the White House has, in rapid succession, demonstrated a stunning disregard for political process and for the nuance required to pass legislation in Congress. In a political system explicitly designed to frustrate, the Obama Administration appears determined to make matters worse rather than better. Two incidents highlight what appears to be administration obstructionism of the worst possible kind that threatens the economic, political and cultural integrity of the nation.

The first issue arose in the last days of 2012, as the United States was hurtling towards what became universally known as the Fiscal Cliff. Economists, political consultants and media pundits speculated wildly as to the potential repercussions of such an event, whilst in D.C., high-level negotiations continued in an apparent effort to prevent such an incident. This, of course, had been an artificial deadline, imposed to ensure that politicians of both sides of the aisle worked together to agree upon a budget. This apparently was too much to ask for. However, with the deadline looming politicians gathered into the early hours to thrash out a deal that would be mutually agreeable to Democrats and Republicans alike. Yet whilst these negotiations were moving forward, President Obama chose to stage a campaign style rally on the White House campus surrounded by a group of children who he claimed would suffer under the proposals put forth by the Republican Party.

Now, to be clear, the Republican Party and its leadership hardly covered themselves in glory in this process and as a result questions were asked as to the continued viability of John Boehner’s Speakership. However, putting Republican ineptitude to one side, the decision of the president to stage such a politically inept event at the very moment that negotiators were meeting to flesh out an agreement spoke volumes as to the tin ear that that the administration has and to its appalling capacity to deal with Congress. Just as negotiations were nearing completion the president elected to play politics rather than work to ensure an agreeable solution. It should not surprise anyone that the final deal appears to have been struck by Vice President Biden, and the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, two old boys from the Senate who have known each other for decades and who are used to working together to solve problems; In other words, two politicians who understand how and why Congress works and importantly, how not to get things done. Even then, the best that they could do was to kick the problem 3 months down the road, so that we are faced with the dilemma once more. In the coming days the spectre of Sequestration will loom large once more as the U.S. hovers above a financial abyss. Once more the world will look on aghast and ponder the fate of the world’s most important economic powerhouse and the childish antics of its leading politicians.

The second incident involved a similar situation but a different set of circumstances. For years, politicians in Washington have been debating immigration reform. However, only rarely do serious proposals see the light of day and make it out of various committees. In Washington, failed legislation can become toxic and persuade any career minded politician to avoid the issue for years, possibly even decades (as occurred with health care). So when a bipartisan group of serious minded, intelligent Senators (known as the Group of 8) got together in an effort to present a balanced and logical series of initiatives on the issue, you would have imagined that this was something the White House would have been supportive of, but you would be wrong.

Instead of welcoming such moves and working either quietly or openly to promote a bipartisan initiative to solve this long-standing issue, the White House appears determined to kill it at birth. The first inept move was for President Obama to insist on delivering a speech in Las Vegas within hours of the Group of 8 press conference on the issue, which had been the very image of bipartisanship. This immediately drew attention and political momentum away from the work that had been conducted on the issue and muddied the waters in relation to the situation. As if this wasn’t bad enough, USA Today has now been provided with draft legislation from the White House that would appear to directly challenge the bill being proposed by the Group of 8.

If passage of immigration reform was the political priority of the administration it had a perfect opportunity to pursue a bipartisan bill that would have put Obama and his former 2008 adversary John McCain and his potential successor in 2016, Marco Rubio, on the same side of the issue. Instead, the White House has sought to politicise the issue and risks torpedoing the issue. One must ask at what point ineptitude becomes a deliberate attempt to obfuscate and be bloody-minded. Whichever approach is being adopted, the end result is the same; bipartisan legislation is being undermined, politics is becoming sullied and confidence in the United States is being shaken at precisely the moment that it needs to provide global leadership in time of economic crisis.

This continuing escapade is a clear and telling reminder of Obama’s lack of legislative experience and should be a warning the next time a candidate has the hubris to declare himself ready for the presidency after little more than 18 months in the U.S. Senate.  Leadership, it appears, was not on the ballot in 2012, let us hope it will be in 2016.

Is Competency Too Much To Ask For In Washington?

At a point well beyond the last minute the House of Representatives voted to accept the Senate legislation designed to prevent the United States from plunging over the self-appointed fiscal cliff. This was a total abdication of political leadership on either side of the political aisle in a situation that had only arisen due to the inability of Republicans and Democrats to agree to a budget for the past several years. However, this package, designed to shock Washington out of its short-term approach to monumental problems has been totally undermined. Rather than causing politicians to sit down and thrash out their differences, the total lack of adequate leadership on either side of the political aisle has resulted in brinkmanship, grandstanding and posturing that has left the United States in little better shape than before. Indeed, it may have inflicted more harm than good with the Congressional Budget Office suggesting that this move could add a further $4 trillion to the deficit.

Since the midterms elections of 2010, the White House and the House of Representatives have been unable to agree on a federal budget. Not for the first time in history, a Democratic President is at odds with a Republican Congress. In the past a compromise solution has been found and the nation carried. This time, however, Republicans declared that their number one aim was ensuring Barack Obama became a one-term president, which infuriated the White House. This was coupled by poor Congressional relations from the White House. With both sides at fault, the so-called Super Committee convened in the summer of 2011 to formulate a series of policies that would need to be enacted should the two sides fail to come up with a solution. These included ending the Bush-era tax cuts (which would result in taxes increasing by aprox 5% on all Americans) and the introduction of spending cuts (including aprox 10% from the Pentagon budget). Logical really; the nation is $16.4 trillion in dept and this needs to be rectified. Democrats are loathed to reduce spending, whilst Republicans are opposed to tax increases. Someone has to give. Alas, the deal that has been reached only raises taxes. It has failed to grasp the nettle of spending cuts that would be necessary to reduce the budget deficit substantially. Little wonder that this package is one that few are happy with and was one that most Republicans refused to endorse in the House of Representatives. As a result, the Republican Speaker was forced to rely on Democrats to get the measures passed.

Few have emerged with their reputations enhanced, least of all the President and the Speaker, each of whom have hit an all time low in recent days in terms of performance. The President’s remarks from the Eisenhower Office building prior to the Senate vote had the potential to derail the entire proceedings due to the passive-aggressive tone. Meanwhile the Speaker’s inept effort to get his fellow Republicans to agree to tax rises for those earning over $1 million backfired terribly and led him to effectively throw in the towel and pass the buck to the Senate! It was in these negotiations that perhaps the only success emerged, in last minute negotiations between the vice president and the Senate Minority leader. This reveals the true nature of how politics in Washington works: Intimate conversations, based on years of association, between two people who have worked together in the past. Megaphone politics doesn’t work and President Obama should know this. Or at least he would if he had served any serious time in the Senate before deciding to run for the presidency. The deal struck is the latest in a series of short term, quick fixes that leaves the US economy in a terrible shape, with reputations in tatters and with much left to do as Obama begins his second term.