During President Barack Obama’s first term, Senate Minority Leader and Galapagos-American Mitch McConnell stated his single-most purpose was to make Obama a one term president. The statement served as a rallying cry for the Republican Party in their war against the president, bringing to bear an obstinacy and recalcitrance heretofore unseen in the history of American politics.
(Mitch McConnell is on the right.)
The tool of Republican obstructionism was the filibuster — a parliamentary procedure where a sole member of the legislative body can extend or delay a vote on a bill. Historically, the filibuster has been used as a rare stopgap measure, but now, it has evolved into a full blown bill killer. Under the Republican minority leadership of Mitch McConnell, the use of the filibuster skyrocketed to its highest level in American history.
Given these numbers, how then was Barack Obama able to actually accomplish anything in his first term and still get re-elected? It didn’t help that the president wasn’t the greatest salesman during his first term. At times, Obama could be his own worst enemy.
There was, of course, the stimulus package, a combination of tax cuts and infrastructure spending, which he failed to sell to the electorate, despite evidence that the economy began to improve soon after its implementation. With blood in the water, Republicans quickly pounced, labeling it another example of a big-spending, high-deficit liberal tomfoolery.
Then there was the debilitating health care debate, and the battle within the Democratic Party over the inclusion of the government sponsored public option, a mechanism the president had supported as a candidate. During negotiations, Obama began from a weak bargaining position and was dragged to the right, capitulating to the whims of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans. Despite missteps, Obamacare passed and the Democrats came away with a tangible victory.
Nonetheless, these debilitating processes sapped enthusiasm from the president’s electorate. Could the Democrats put aside their misgivings, and give Obama four more years? The answer, as we now know, was a resounding yes. But where do we go from here? Now that Mitt Romney has been decisively shunted aside, what is the prospect for real change over the next four years?
The path is by no means an ascent via escalator into a wonderland of sunshine and puffy white clouds. The Republicans still hold a majority in the House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof minority of 45 senators in the Senate. Right off the bat, we have seen both President Obama and Tandori-American John Boehner spouting jargon about bi-partisanism and cooperation, a kind of election afterglow. The jargon is no doubt politically motivated, as both parties understand there is the looming fiscal cliff. Neither side wants to be seen as unwilling to deal in the wake of an election, when people are actually, sort of, paying attention to what is going on in Washington.
The big question being bandied about by pundits and prognosticators is how the election afterglow will affect the GOP’s modus operandi into the near and distant future. The evidence for necessary shifts in the party is rife.
The purpose of Mitch McConnell’s political life has been nullified. The Democrats decisively won about 80% of blacks, Latinos and other non-white voters, compared to less than 17% for Romney, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. Obama also won around 63%of all voters between the ages of 18 to 34. In short, Romney won the rich, white, and elderly votes.
This is no doubt a huge existential, demographic quandary for the Republican Party, which many say ought to lead the GOP to do some serious soul-searching. In all of this talk of contrition, though, are Republicans sincere about this so-called self reflection and search for a soul? Or will they make the recurring excuse, that Romney wasn’t conservative enough, and then proceed to put lipstick on the proverbial pig?
Whichever road taken, the GOP has about one and a half years to make votes on bills that suggest to their constituents that they have actually gotten something done. The incentive system hasn’t changed. In 2014, candidates will again have to report back to their districts and ask for your vote. What they have to show depends on Obama’s political agenda over the coming months and the Republicans' willingness to accept defeat and work with him.
President Obama indeed owns a great deal of political capital.He has that much more momentum than Bush II, who famously said after his 2004 presidential win, “I have political capital. I intend to spend it.” The strategic political reason behind this momentum is due, in large part, to the way the GOP framed the election as a battle between big government and small government.
In the end, voters wanted a president and a party in power that was pragmatic and could get things done. But now that Obama has won, it is difficult to argue that Obama’s victory wasn’t also a referendum on liberal or left-leaning ideals that government can play a meaningful part in people’s lives. Elizabeth Warren went as far as to say that the reason she was elected was because she stood up for the “core of liberalism.”
The president also has economic winds at his back as the job and housing markets have shown signs of continuing recovery. The fact that there is evidence that the president’s policies are actually improving things should create a greater political willingness for Republicans to join the winning team, if only to take some of the credit. If things continue to improve and the Republicans still choose to obstruct and sit on the sidelines, the Democrats will be able to tout success once again in the face of Republican intransigence. These factors, as well as the increased media and public attention in the afterglow of the election, may provide an impetus for a new jobs bill and perhaps reaching a deal on raising new revenue, two things that will be addressed at the end of this year and early next year. Moreover, the Democrats will certainly continue to pound the strong narrative that the election was a mandate on raising new revenue, as Joe Biden recently pointed out.
Beyond jobs and revenue, the president will push for comprehensive immigration reform. Here it seems that political self-interest should coincide with some sense of moral rectitude, seeing as it is in both party’s interests to court the Hispanic vote. Passing immigration reform would certainly be more of a political victory for the president than for Republicans, as Obama could tout that both immigration reform and the DREAM Act occurred under his party’s watch. Despite this, the Republicans simply cannot afford to say no to immigration reform if they want to apart of the conversation in 2016.
In addition to the above, here are some more promises that Obama will aim to keep:
Cut tuition increases in half over 10 years. Cut oil imports in half by 2020. Campaign finance reform. Cars and trucks will go twice as far on a gallon of gas by the middle of the next decade. The implementation of Obamacare, costs go down. Lower Medicare health care costs. The implementation of Dodd-Frank. Cut deficits by $4 trillion over 10 years. Transition out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. Reintroduce an assault weapons ban.
No doubt Obama has a tall order over the next four years, but he has the momentum and a mandate. Of course, the path will still have thorns, and Obama will not accomplish everything he sets out to accomplish, but the political capital for the president is difficult to underestimate.
In a system so fraught with political gridlock, this capital ought to lubricate things. It should provide a more steady path for Obama than the previous four years, especially since much of the foundation has already been laid. Even if the president doesn’t accomplish all he sets out to, presiding over a recovering economy, successfully implementing Obamacare, and passing immigration reform would be enough to greatly improve the chances of a Democratic candidate in 2016.
Still, at the center of this path forward, the question of the Republican party’s soul will continue to loom. Can the Faustian bargain with the extreme wing be walked back? Can they escape from the parallel universe of Fox News and Breitbart blogs, and assume some semblance of objective reality? Or has the GOP entered onto a new trajectory that will permanently change the makeup of the party for decades to come?