Judging by the president’s tone and demeanor in announcing a compromise over the Bush tax cuts, one would be hard pressed to believe that he had come out ahead in an important political battle.
But the president did just that in meeting Republicans halfway on the all-consuming issue.
At a time when Washington is mired in partisan gridlock, and the public’s confidence in Congress remains low, Obama successfully inserted himself as a middleman seeking to patch up the differences between the two parties. He has seemed reasonable in a debate filled with political theater and gamesmanship.
But the president’s newfound role as a bipartisan champion has come at a price. Not just from a policy perspective, as he is being forced to fold on what he most truly desires. But politically, too, he’s taking heavy heat from the left of his party, as a familiar list of complaints resurface. Just take a tour of the liberal blogosphere and you’ll quickly discover that the grassroots of the Democratic Party is giving both Obama and his decision less-than-favorable reviews. Words like “capitulation,” “weak” and “saddened” are in heavy use. For once wide-eyed supporters, Obama’s give-and-take approach with the GOP on the Bush tax cuts is another item to add to the growing list of failed promises. Confusion has set in as they try to figure out why he is willing to work with a Republican Party intent on his political destruction.
Even Obama’s allies on Capitol Hill are reluctant to embrace the deal Obama has carved out with Republicans. Democratic House leaders’ less-than-ringing endorsement of the compromise is producing chatter that liberal Democrats in the lower chamber could foil the deal. The split between Obama and congressional Democrats over the Bush tax cuts is a likely preview of the tension that is destined to come over the next two years as the president balances his reelection prospects with the legislative priorities of his party.
While the left wants him to fight like there’s no tomorrow, Obama is instead acting like there will be a tomorrow. With reelection on his mind, he’s taking important symbolic and substantive steps to repair a broken and dysfunctional relationship with the GOP. The well may be poisoned, but Republican cooperation on key issues could prove crucial to winning back disgruntled independents and reviving a presidency steeped in partisan bickering. Early signs that the relationship is on a path to recovery have begun to spring up. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and incoming House Speaker John Boehner have been far more complimentary of the president’s open mind than members of his own party. The kind words may not last, but for now at least, both sides have decided to shelve the red-hot rhetoric that defined the campaign.
The outcome of the tax issue is still in doubt. But Obama’s conduct during the debate is a slow march towards filling the void of compromiser-in-chief. The public is anxious for him to make good on his promise of being a leader who can ably build bipartisan coalitions to solve the country’s most pressing problems. And they still have faith that he can do it. In a Gallup poll taken after the election, 64 percent of Americans thought Obama was more likely to make a sincere effort to work with Republicans in Congress, compared to just 43 percent who felt the same about Republicans. If the president wants to rehabilitate his image as a middle-of-the-road dealmaker while shedding the partisan rancor that dominated the first two years of his presidency, he will have to take some losses today in order to win tomorrow.
Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.