By Robert Kuttner
This piece was first published on Reader Supported News.
President Obama has heartened progressives with many actions since his re-election. He seems to grasp that he has a lot more power to move public opinion than he used in his first term. He also understands that most of the Republican positions on the issues are unpopular with broad public, divisive within the Republican Party, and just plain bad policy.
So will he maximize his advantage? Or will the State of the Union be the occasion for more olive branches, more searching for common ground that doesn’t really exist.
American history shows that a leader does better being “president of all the people” by isolating a destructive opposition rather than splitting the difference with it. In his second inaugural, Lincoln famously and magnanimously declared, “With malice toward none and charity for all, let us bind up the nation’s wounds.” But first it was necessarily to defeat the South on the battlefield. The film, Lincoln, accurately underscored the reality that no compromise with the Confederacy was possible.
Despite the aspiration that launched Obama’s national career, to look beyond a red state America and a blue state America to a United States of America, our country is more deeply divided over fundamentals than at any time since the Civil War, with the possible exceptions of the Vietnam war and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
These great struggles were not won by splitting the difference. The entire machinery of the federal government had to be wielded, over the diehard objections of the segregationist South, to bring citizenship to African Americans. A rearguard fight to undo voting rights through ballot suppression still goes on, half a century later.
And on Vietnam, there was no splitting of the difference. The military industrial complex won the policy battle, only to lose on the battlefield.
Look back through American history, and most of the great achievements were not compromises. FDR rammed through Social Security and reform of Wall Street, and the Wagner Act, and public power and the WPA, over the strenuous objections of most Republicans.
Lyndon Johnson had Republican support for the great civil rights acts, but in those days the opponents of civil rights were primarily Dixiecrats.
When women won the right to vote, they did not win any 3/5th compromise.
One key law that was a compromise—the Federal Reserve Act—split the difference by putting bankers in charge of the central bank. And we’ve all been paying the price ever since.
But the great presidents have been leaders, not trimmers.
Today, Barack Obama’s approval ratings are creeping upward, both because the public likes a jaunty, resolute leader, and because Republican policies are out of sync with public sentiment.
Obama pushed Republicans’ backs to the wall when they tried to hold hostage tax increases for everybody to a tax cut for the top 1 percent. Obama reminded the public just what a bad idea that was. The Republicans caved.
He made it clear that he was not going to allow pay a ransom in exchange for the Republicans relenting on the debt ceiling extension. The Republicans caved again.
He came out of the box strong on immigration, insisting on a comprehensive reform package with a path to earned citizenship, and on gun control. On both issues, Republicans are losing the battle for public opinion, and the president has immense powers to move public opinion—if he will use them.
He will lose some battles, of course, because many of these reforms require legislation and Republicans do control the House. But a leader fights and fights again.
As the early tests on the tax increase and on the debt ceiling showed, even a Tea Party caucus with safe seats doesn’t totally control the Republican Party. House Speaker John Boehner and something like half the members of his caucus really do worry about getting re-elected. They do worry about getting too crazy for the business elite, which doesn’t want another financial collapse.
So Obama begins his second term with more self-confidence and more fight than he began his first term. It isn’t that the Republicans are weaker today—if anything, they were weaker right after the financial collapse, when Democrats had majorities in both houses and the disgrace of George W. Bush was fresh in everyone’s memory. But Obama is stronger because he has acquired a taste for leading and fighting, not just for conciliating.
Now for the hard part. Even if he succeeds in winning some early victories that change policy for the better, move public opinion, animate his own base, and isolate the Republican Party, the things that most need reforming will take leadership of a whole other order of magnitude.
The economy is far from a robust recovery. The gap between the elite and ordinary working Americans is more extreme than ever. We are not generating nearly enough good jobs. Right now, in its understanding of how serious is the employment gap, Ben Bernanke’s Federal Reserve is slightly to the left of the White House.
Making progress on these longer-term challenges will require more than tactical wins. It will require a fundamental change of direction.
President Obama is holding the line against further tax breaks for the rich, but he accepts the premise that the recovery requires deficit reduction. What it requires is significant public investment. It would be good to hear that in his second Inaugural, and in his upcoming state of the Union and revised budget.
Despite enactment of the Affordable Care Act, virtually all of the long-term stresses on the federal budget are the result of health care costs being out of control.
Obamacare has to be a first step towards universal public health insurance, or it will merely enlist a bloated, inefficient system to cover more people at greater expense, and will keep giving Republicans excuses to demand offsetting cuts in Medicare and elsewhere.
Despite the opening of Superstorm Sandy, we have yet to see this administration get serious enough about either global climate change or about remediation and protection against future storm surges that will be even worse.
So while the tougher, more resolute Barack Obama is to be welcomed, as a fighter, a leader, and a partisan, the deeper challenges that will define his legacy are still to come.
White House/Pete Souza