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The GOP and Obama’s Second Term: Rage of an Unprivileged Class, Pt. 1

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Rage of an Unprivileged Class

It was, of course, to be expected that Republicans would not like President Obama’s inaugural address no matter what said. In fact, it’s safe to say that the only speech Republicans would have been happy to hear from President Obama is one that began with “I here by resign…”; thereby handing the GOP a big win on the “top priority” they set for themselves on the day of his first inauguration.

Boiled down to gravy, all the conservative complaints about Obama’s inaugural address can be boiled down to this: He didn’t talk to them. As usual, Republicans are missing a bigger, more important reality: Obama didn’t spend much time talking to or reaching out to Republicans, because he may not need to anymore. This three part series examines the possibility that Obama doesn’t even need to pretend to reach out to Republicans anymore, what that means for the GOP, and the country.

Naturally, Republicans would have objected to any policies the president introduced in his speech. But Obama didn’t do much of that. Instead he gave a speech that both signaled and embraced changes that conservatives struggle comically with at best, and at worst willfully ignore.

More about that later, though. First, let’s address the reaction from the right. Then we can assess what’s really behind it.

“Where Is The Love?”

Republicans reactions to Obama’s historic inaugural speech from right-wing pundits and politicos bring to mind the title of that old Roberta  Flack/Donny Hathaway hit: “Where is the love?”

  • On Fox News, Chris Wallace complained “I don’t think he reached out to the other side at all.”
  • Rep. Steve Stockman (R, Texas), who threatened to impeach Obama over proposals to curb gun violence, said “Obama has offered only hopelessness, bitter personal attacks and politics as usual.”
  • Fred Barnes complained in the Wall Street Journal that the president’s speech was “highly partisan,” and wasn’t enough like the inaugural speeches of old.
  • “Young Gun” Kevin McCarthy (R, Calif.) told CBS, “”I was more hopeful that you’d hear more bipartisanship.”
  • Sen. John Thune (R, S.D.) told The Hill, “It did seem that he wasn’t doing the kind of outreach that he needs to do if he wants to get things accomplished in a second term.”
  • Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.), whom Obama defeated in 2008, told The Hill “I would have liked to have seen some outreach…This is the eighth [inauguration] that I’ve been to and always there’s been a portion of the speech where [the president says], ‘I reach out my hand because we need to work together.’ That wasn’t in this speech.”

But Michael Gerson’s Washington Post column in response to Obama’s Inaugural address seems to have gotten the most attention, probably because it’s chock full of the Republican complaints that started almost as soon as the inauguration ended. It starts even before the column itself does, in a title that declares “Obama shoves idealism into its grave.”

Gerson begins with the by now typical conservative “post-racial” fantasizing, portraying Obama’s 2008 victory as “a symbol of reconciliation in America’s longest, bloodiest conflict — the one that produced Antietam.” goes on to bemoan Obama’s abandonment of the traditional inaugural address. Gerson complains that instead of directing attention to “unifying national values beyond current controversies” and asserting “moral duties of kindness and civility we owe each other in a democracy,” Obama instead those to play to his base.

It is not the first time a president has been indicted by the praise of his courtiers. Obama arrived with limited experience on the national stage — only to find himself in the fight from the last act of Hamlet. He seemed surprised that Washington could not be changed by the force of his personality. He has become a sobered and hardened figure. A former public official who often interacted with Obama put it this way to me: “Obama disdains politicians and the art of politics, but he is highly competitive and wants to beat them at their own game.”

This is not a problem if the president is merely one participant among many in a series of zero-sum political battles. But this approach has serious drawbacks if a president is called to play a leadership role in reforms that require both parties to trust each other and take simultaneous risks. On the evidence of his second inaugural, Obama has moved beyond such idealism.

Thus, Gerson declares that Obama “shoved idealism into its grave,” without bothering first to ask: Who eighty-sixed idealism? And who dug a grave for it in the first place? To answer that question we have to go all the way back to the Obama’s first inauguration. As Don Draper detailed in Do Not Ask What Good We Do, his book about the House of Representatives in the 112th Congress, even as Barack and Michelle Obama danced at various inaugural Balls, Republicans were already spotting to obstruct the president at every turn.

During a lengthy discussion, the senior GOP members worked out a plan to repeatedly block Obama over the coming four years to try to ensure he would not be re-elected.

The disclosures – described as “appalling and sad” by Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod – undermine Republican claims that the president alone is to blame for the partisan deadlock in Washington.

A detailed account of who was present at the dinner on that January 20 night and the plan they worked out to bring down Obama is provided by Robert Draper in ‘Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the US House of Representatives’, published this week.

In his book, Draper opens with the heady atmosphere in Washington on the days running up to the inauguration and the day itself, which attracted 1.8 million to the mall to witness Obama being sworn in as America’s first black president.

Those numbers contributed to a growing sense of unease among Republicans as much the defeat in the White House race the previous November. The 15 Republicans were in a sombre mood as they gathered at the Caucus Room in Washington, an upscale restaurant where a New York strip steak costs $51.

Attending the dinner were House members Eric Cantor, Jeb Hensarling, Pete Hoekstra, Dan Lungren, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan and Pete Sessions. From the Senate were Tom Coburn, Bob Corker, Jim DeMint, John Ensign and Jon Kyl. Others present were former House Speaker and future – and failed – presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and the Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who organized the dinner and sent out the invitations.

The dinner table was set in a square at Luntz’s request so everyone could see one another and talk freely. The session lasted four hours and by the end the sombre mood had lifted: they had conceived a plan. They would take back the House in November 2010, which they did, and use it as a spear to mortally wound Obama in 2011 and take back the Senate and White House in 2012, Draper writes.

“If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” said Keven McCarthy, quoted by Draper. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”

The Republicans have done that, bringing Washington to a near standstill several times during Obama’s first term over debt and other issues.

And that’s just what they did. On everything from jobs to judicial appointments — first with filibusters in the Senate, and then with the tea partiers in the House after the 2010 election — Republicans did everything they could to gum up the works and stymie the president’s agenda, and

In fact, Republicans showed the kind of party discipline they’re famous for. (Or used to be famous for, before the “tea party.”) Republicans said no to everything. And if the economy suffered as a result? That was just part of what Paul Krugman called their “obstruct and exploit” strategy.

Think of it as a two-part strategy. First, obstruct any and all efforts to strengthen the economy, then exploit the economy’s weakness for political gain. If this strategy sounds cynical, that’s because it is. Yet it’s the G.O.P.’s best chance for victory in November.

But are Republicans really playing that cynical a game?

… What about the argument, which I hear all the time, that Mr. Obama should have fixed the economy long ago? The claim goes like this: during his first two years in office Mr. Obama had a majority in Congress that would have let him do anything he wanted, so he’s had his chance.

The short answer is, you’ve got to be kidding.

As anyone who was paying attention knows, the period during which Democrats controlled both houses of Congress was marked by unprecedented obstructionism in the Senate. The filibuster, formerly a tactic reserved for rare occasions, became standard operating procedure; in practice, it became impossible to pass anything without 60 votes. And Democrats had those 60 votes for only a few months. Should they have tried to push through a major new economic program during that narrow window? In retrospect, yes — but that doesn’t change the reality that for most of Mr. Obama’s time in office U.S. fiscal policy has been defined not by the president’s plans but by Republican stonewalling.

And, true to form, even after Obama won re-election with a wider margin than both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, conservative media began calling for continued obstruction almost immediate after the results were in. Having failed miserably in their mission to make Barack Obama a one-term president, it almost seems like conservatives are threatening to use the same obstructionist tactics to punish the country for re-electing him.

Obama came to Washington, not drunk on the power of his “cult or personality,” but believing (perhaps too earnestly) in exactly the kind of bipartisanship Gerson extols and wants to accuse Obama of bumping off. But you don’t need CSI to see the the GOP’s fingerprints all over the shovel used to bash bipartisanship before digging its grave.

For most of his first term, Obama stuck with one approach when it came to Congress — to attempt to work the Republicans, even if the opposed him at every turn. It drove Democrats crazy, and taught Obama a hard lesson about trying to compromise with the GOP.

Time and again, the president came to Congress bearing pre-emptive concessions — on his original economic stimulus package, his health care plan and the 2011 debt-ceiling fight — only to have the door slammed in his face by an obstructionist GOP that viewed politics as a zero-sum game.

Because the president has long seen himself as a conciliator and a bridge figure, he was unwilling to let go of his faith that if he only hewed to the path of moderation, his opponents would eventually have to meet him there.

Obama’s efforts at compromise yielded him little. He won almost no Republican votes for any of his major initiatives. Being left hanging with his hand outstretched made him look weak and ineffectual during much of his first term, despite major legislative accomplishments. It disappointed his base, which would have preferred more stridency to match the GOP.

As George W. Bush once said, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” It’s understandble that Republicans were taken aback, and even starteled by Obama’s speech. They hear from a very different President Obama than the one who addressed the country four years ago.

The difference between the two speeches was almost like night and day. Gone were the concessions to some conservative arguments, and the conciliatory tone of Obama circa 2009. Both the speech and the man who delivered it were confrontational. And the man who came to Washington hoping to be a “transformational” president, and arguably failed to live up to that goal in his first term, is now himself transformed in a way that might finally make his presidency truly transformational.

Series NavigationThe GOP & Obama’s Second Term: Rage of an Unprivileged Class, Pt. 2

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