The talk is of jobs and fixing the nation’s fiscal problems, but both sides in Washington are keeping their powder dry at the moment, looking for political advantage over the other.
House Republicans are spending the next week in what is largely a symbolic act to repeal President Obama’s health care bill, which will likely go nowhere in the Senate and would be vetoed anyway by the president if it did pass.
But when it comes to putting forth ideas for how to cut spending, or how to make Medicare and Medicaid solvent, the GOP has been clear about one thing only: they have little intention of making politically perilous proposals before the president does.
“Entitlement reform will only be done on a bipartisan basis. So we’re waiting for signals from the president as to whether or not that’s a discussion he’s willing to have,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, in a Thursday press conference. “The president must embrace it.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, acted on Tuesday as if Obama was the one who was just elected based on promises to cut government spending.
“Once we get to the State of the Union, I can tell you, I expect this president to put some action behind the words that he has been using,” Cantor said. “Number one, I am looking to see some significant spending cuts proposed by the president that we can work on together.”
Cantor was pressed for what cuts the GOP will propose, and whether any will come before the State of the Union speech on Jan. 25. He mentioned only a five percent cut to congressional offices, totaling $35 million, and nothing further.
House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Republican, had no answer Thursday for NBC’s Brian Williams when asked to name “a program right now that we could do without.”
“I don’t think I have one off the top of my head,” Boehner said.
Even House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who has been the closest thing to a political kamikaze in the House GOP over the last few years by proposing a plan to completely overhaul Medicare and Medicaid, was on Thursday backing off a push he indicated he might make weeks ago to include the plan in the House budget.
“I never intended, when I wrote the Road Map, that this was going to be the budget or the platform for the Republican Party,” Ryan said at a forum sponsored by E21, a conservative economic group.
Yet just a month ago, Ryan told reporters that he would like to include the “Road Map” in the budget, though he acknowledged then he would have to persuade other Republicans to go along with him.
“I know what I want to do but I don’t know what I can do,” he said.
On Thursday the writing was on the wall that Ryan has received the message from House GOP leadership that the “Road Map” is a no go: “I’m not suggesting that Congress is going to propose this,” he said.
The White House, meanwhile, has occupied itself in the opening week of 2011 with a series of personnel changes that served a dual purpose. The staff moves have kept the focus of the press away from policy questions, as the departure of Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and the arrival of Chief of Staff William Daley have sucked up all the oxygen in the room.
But the moves are also in large part a reorientation of the Obama White House to prepare for the 2012 reelection campaign. Gibbs, in particular, will be a key figure operating as a high level communicator and operative on behalf of the president.
“I may leave the White House, but I’m not going to leave being a member of Barack Obama’s team,” Gibbs said Thursday on MSNBC.
Gibbs and David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama who is also leaving the administration, will be freed up by their departures to give themselves to a single-minded focus on Obama’s reelection effort.
David Plouffe, meanwhile, who ran Obama’s 2008 campaign, is arriving at the White House on Monday to replace Axelrod, and will be a key point of contact between the outside players and the president and his administration, coordinating messaging, spending, travel and everything else.
Daley’s arrival, meanwhile, is the biggest move by Obama to defang critics who have said his White House is anti-business.
“As I used to say the last two years – I don’t know whether it’s technically true or not – but that there was nobody down at the White House who had ever even run a lemonade stand,” McConnell said Thursday. “You know, they were all college professors … former elected officials. This is a guy who’s actually been out in the private sector, been a part of business. Frankly, my first reaction is: That sounds like a good idea.”
Repairing relations with the private sector is important politically for the president: he needs to retain some fundraising support and also keep from losing voters who are influenced by the way he deals with business. And there is likely some residual positive economic impact made on the market by such peace offerings.
So while talk in Washington has been about bipartisan cooperation to reduce spending levels, address the deficit and the debt, and even move to addressing energy policy, immigration, and tax reform, the chief objective for Republicans and Democrats in these opening days of the new year has been avoiding risk.
The gamesmanship will disappoint and even disgust some, but is understandable from the perspective that both sides view the 2012 election as a make or break moment for them. Republicans are severely limited in what they can do on health care and everything else if Obama remains president, while a second term for the president would likely cement his health care bill in place and allow him to move aggressively in many other areas.