The Obama Administration's Self-Inflicted Political Straitjacket

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Uncategorized

Yes, I’m alive. Welcome back to the blog. I hope everyone had a nice little break over the Thanksgiving holiday. I know I certainly did.

You know who didn’t have a nice little break over the Thanksgiving holiday? The White House.

It’s been a(nother) bad week for Barack Obama and friends, what with WikiLeaks dumping 250,000 top-secret State Department communiqués that reveal nothing particularly earth-shattering, but some damning backroom espionage by America’s top diplomats nonetheless. This, of course, beget a media firestorm questioning whether the leak has left the president “weak” in both the political and foreign policy realms just as his administration prepares to shift an eye toward reelection efforts.

Oh, and the president took a mean elbow the mouth in a friendly post-Thanksgiving basketball game, resulting in 12 stitches and some unflattering pictures of the commander-in-chief holding a wad of toilet paper to his bloody lip as he made his way out of the gym.

In the words of VH1, Barack Obama is having the best week ever!

And do you know what cures a bad week better than anything else? A poorly strategized, one-sided gesture of “bipartisanship” that undermines your economic agenda, that’s what!

Yesterday, in what seems like a desperate attempt to deflect some media attention away from the WikiLeaks scandal, the White House announced a two-year freeze on salaries for all civilian federal employees. You know, those lazy fat-cats that are living large on government benjamins — or, in other words, getting paid $40,000 a year to perform thankless jobs that are nevertheless essential to several important programs that millions of Americans rely upon every day.

That’s right, public servants. Stop sticking your hand out, the gravy train stops here.

Oh, President Obama. Where to begin?

The pay freeze is, first and foremost, a disappointing political move. These kinds of one-sided gestures are exactly what killed the White House (and, by extension, the Democrats) on both the stimulus package and health care reform.

Let’s recap. In early 2009 when the administration was trying to pass a large-scale stimulus package in hopes of boosting the flailing economy, the president made it very clear that he wanted some Republican support for whatever measure ultimately passed through Congress. How did he do that? By putting forth a bill laden with Republican-favored tax cuts that his economic advisers cautioned would be less effective in stimulating economic growth than other methods. In fact, tax cuts comprised approximately one-third of the $789 billion stimulus package.

Now, it’s all well and good to compromise with Republicans. Indeed, it’s preferable to be agreeable and productive, both politically and policy-wise. But you don’t open negotiations by giving them what they want right off the bat. That’s not how it works. Such a strategy — or lack thereof — doesn’t require them to make concessions (i.e. give up some votes) in order to secure a more desirable policy outcome. It doesn’t give them a political stake in the negotiation process.

Imagine a world where the president comes to the Republicans and says, “We want to do this stimulus package. We’d like to put $789 billion into the economy — 45 percent through infrastructure spending, 45 percent through aid to state and local governments, and 10 percent through tax cuts.” What would the congressional Republicans do? They’d throw a fit. “That’s ridiculous, Mr. President,” they’d say. “Our members won’t vote for something with that much spending and that little tax relief.” And they would be right about that.

This is where negotiation begins.

Perhaps after haggling for awhile, the president could secure some modicum of Republican support in exchange for cutting the bill’s spending and increasing its tax relief efforts. Perhaps he could strike a deal where the package would be structured equally across the board — one-third to tax cuts, one-third to infrastructure spending, and one-third to state aid — but do so in such a way that gives the Republicans some kind of role in the process (and, therefore, some responsibility) and picks up a chunk of votes along the way.

Or he could do what he did — just throw them a bone up front and get nothing in return. What incentive do Republicans have to be cooperative if the White House is just going to give them what they want without demanding any kind of concessions? In that scenario, they are free to sit on the backbench and lob political grenades at the administration, vote against the bill, and still get their desired policy outcome — and that’s exactly what they did.

This is an absolutely crazy thing for the administration to do — but they keep doing it. First the stimulus, then health care reform, and now the pay freeze. The White House continues to give Republicans what they want without getting any substantial concessions in return. Even worse, they know what they’re doing. They know these kinds of tactics are a mistake — as the president has lamented in recent weeks — yet they continue to do it.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results each time, then the White House political team is in dire need of a nice facility with tight white coats and padded walls. I don’t care how badly the press is savaging the administration over the WikiLeaks documents — we’ve been down the road of foolish, one-way “bipartisanship” before, and it doesn’t end pretty for anyone with a ‘D’ next to their name.

When does the madness stop?

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