Pete Souza/White House
"If negotiators sit on opposite sides of the table and repeat their long-held positions, they will fail. If they sit on the same side of the table, and put the problems on the other side, they can succeed." — Jean Monnet, father of the European Union.
Here are thoughts about the year ahead after spending most of the past six weeks away from Seattle.
In North Carolina, other Northwest states, California and Arizona, I saw many poorly clothed people, rundown housing, abandoned storefronts and streetcorner day-job seekers. The official numbers show gradual upticks in national economic growth and employment. The Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area in North Carolina is especially prospering. But more people are truly hurting than we suspect. Take a drive through Coos Bay and North Bend, Ore., Oakland, Stockton, or Bakersfield, Calif., or South Phoenix, Ariz., and you will see.
My life partner, Jeri Smith-Fornara, and I shared a holiday dinner with poor and homeless people in Prescott, Ariz., while others warmed themselves outside over a homemade bonfire in 30-degree chill. A few blocks away, bars and restaurants were overflowing. There are, of course, many hungry and homeless among us every day in prosperous Seattle and the Eastside.
Another impression from the road: There are a lot of angry and confused people everywhere who have little faith in their government, Wall Street or just about any major institution other than the military. Dispassionate discussion is hard to find, in particular, on such emotional issues as gay rights, gun control, abortion, immigration, marijuana legalization and religious rights. The Seattle metro area is a political monoculture where opinion already has settled on such issues. But we are an exception.
The most dismaying fact entering 2013, for Americans everywhere, is that we have not broken free of the political and ideological polarizations that have grown steadily over the past 20 years. Retiring Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, in a farewell interview, said that "hatreds" developing in the Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama years were "a cancer eating at the heart of our politics." He said that the last two years were the worst in this respect. I agree. They have been as toxic as the end days of the Vietnam- and Watergate-burdened Nixon presidency.
The year ahead has potential to be one of the angriest and least productive in public policymaking that we ever have experienced. The ongoing "fiscal cliff" fiasco has provided a foretaste of things to come. Unless there is a political climate change, much of the next four years will be consumed with a rolling series of budget showdowns. The Congress taking office later this month will be even more polarized and partisan than the unlamented one just departed. Moderate, results-oriented senators and members of Congress, such as our own Rep. Norm Dicks and Sens. Dick Lugar, Kent Conrad, Olympia Snowe and Lieberman, have retired or been defeated.
Events have pushed to the forefront non-budget-related issues, which will receive attention early in the new congressional session. But they will not be easy to resolve because the country is closely divided on them.
The Newtown, Conn., school shootings have generated fresh demand for gun control of some kind. But they also were followed by unprecedented numbers of gun purchases by citizens feeling threatened by the prospect of gun control. High-profile mass shootings, daily killings by two and threes in big-city neighborhoods, thousands of suicides by firearms, and even the gun killings of President Kennedy, Sen. Robert Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, and the attempted murder of President Reagan have not generated sufficient public anger over the past half-century to result in effective gun-control laws. The new Congress will debate but have a difficult time legislating restrictions even on sale of automatic weapons and their ammunition. Tougher handgun control? Only in a few states and cities. Perhaps the only immediate practical effect of the Connecticut shootings will be a more serious national examination of mental-health and popular-culture-related factors leading to mass killings. Our kids, in particular, are being immersed daily in media that treat violence, sexual exploitation and casual mayhem as topics of entertainment. Have a beef with others? Mow them down, all of them.
Immigration reform has gotten a boost from President Obama's one-sided margins among Latino voters in the November national election. Over the past several years, Republicans have generally focused on border control and tough enforcement of existing immigration laws, shunning even the bipartisan initiative taken by President George W. Bush toward limited amnesty for illegals long residing and working in the U.S. But practical politics have given a fresh opening toward new legislation containing some amnesty provisions. Republican leaders see socially and culturally conservative Latino voters as natural allies, if only the divisive immigration issue could be taken off the table. President Obama pledged four years ago to introduce and press for fresh immigration laws but failed to do so. Such legislation now has a chance, if Obama and Republican congressional leaders can find common ground on the fundamentals.
Before any of this takes place, Obama must form his second-term Cabinet. He shifted wisely in nominating Sen. John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State after initially intending to nominate United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice for the position. Rice, who gave untruthful media accounts of the events surrounding the Benghazi, Libya, killing of the U.S. ambassador and security aides, could not have been confirmed by the Senate. Kerry will have no problem. Obama's Defense Secretary nominee, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, also is a risky choice. He made offensive anti-gay comments as a senator and is regarded as inconsistent and flaky by many of his former colleagues. His confirmation hearings could provide a fresh basis for divisiveness. Only Education Secretary Arne Duncan, among present Cabinet members, appears likely to serve out the president's second term.
While they will not be on the upcoming legislative calendar, a number of offshore issues have potential to become politically radioactive as 2013 unfolds. The so-called "Arab Spring," in which Middle East strongman regimes were to be replaced in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria by democratic and secular governments, is not evolving as hoped. Islamic fundamentalists, it turns out, are playing major roles in the replacement groups. The Obama administration, as the predecessor Bush the Younger administration with Iraq, is finding that Western-style democratic governments are not that easy to establish in countries not accustomed to them.
Iran remains on a path toward a nuclear-weapons capability and could cause Israel to undertake military strikes to eliminate it. Nuclear-armed Pakistan remains unstable domestically and continues to be a haven for Taliban and related forces seeking to retake power in Afghanistan. Afghanistan itself is plagued with official corruption; U.S. and allied forces there are increasingly being attacked by the troops and police they are training. It is difficult to see how a U.S. military presence there until the end of 2014, Obama's present stated plan, will make much difference in the situation now existing. As their voters become restless about these issues, their congressional representatives will react accordingly.
Bottom line: It will be uphill slogging, in the present domestic political climate, to get consensus support for any major policy initiative.
Fiscal-cliff replays will take place because president and Congress will continue to face legally mandated budgeting and debt-limit deadlines. They must agree on ways to stimulate short-term economic growth while, at the same time, taking decisions that will reduce our present $16 trillion overall federal debt and the $1 trillion in additional annual deficits that loom in each of the next four years. (Washington state and local budget decisions also will be difficult, but not nearly so difficult as at national level or in red-ink-bathed states such as California. Nowhere, however, can financial/economic policy be left on autopilot).
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