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How Obama, Congress could still work together

The president and Congress could work together if they set themselves to addressing the real but very solvable problems. But if they continue to let partisan hatreds reign, the fiscal cliff fight will set the stage for a very bad year.
President Obama talks in December 2012 with domestic policy advisers (left to right): Rob Nabors, Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs; Jeffrey Zients, Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Chief of Staff Jack Lew.

President Obama talks in December 2012 with domestic policy advisers (left to right): Rob Nabors, Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs; Jeffrey Zients, Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Chief of Staff Jack Lew. 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.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Dec 29, 6:57 p.m. Inappropriate

To suggest that this so called fiscal cliff is a result of intransigence by both parties is simply wrong. Let's not forget what brought about the "legally mandated budgeting and debt-limit deadlines". It was brought about by Tea Party Republicans blackmailing this country with a threat of trashing our economy by failing to raise the debt ceiling. And they are ready to do it again. While long term debt will have to be dealt with eventually, that is not a crisis, and should not be our top priority, particularly during a recession (a recession brought about by Republican deregulatory zeal).

Posted Sat, Dec 29, 9:04 p.m. Inappropriate

The Seattle monoculture speaketh. So much for problem solving.

Djinn

Posted Sat, Dec 29, 9:33 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't have a problem with problem solving, I just think the priorities being pushed by Tea Party Republicans are wrong. The priority they seem to put the highest is to reduce government. At exactly the wrong time.

Posted Sun, Dec 30, 12:15 a.m. Inappropriate

As long as the problem is solved your way, you don't have a problem. If it ain't your way, then all bets are off. It's called my way or the highway and it currently is the operating system of both parties.

Djinn

Posted Sat, Dec 29, 9:07 p.m. Inappropriate

When TVD describes the Obama presidency it sounds more like an Imperial one than an elected one. Not sure he meant it that way.

Djinn

Posted Sat, Dec 29, 9:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Pailthorp's comment illustrates the problem. As noted in the article, the overall effort to reduce short-term deficits and long-term debt flows from the imperative our country faces to do so. Tea Partiers, and many others, felt strongly that this should be done and not postponed. Thus, when Republicans gained control of the House in 2010, they not surprisingly pressed the issue. This did not make them
"blackmailing this country with a threat of trashing our economy by failing to raise the debt ceiling." This is the kind of fevered partisan rhetoric that has helped cause the present polarization.

The White House and GOP House differ on the best way to reduce short-term deficits and long-term debt---the White House emphasizing tax increases and the House spending cuts. The President and Speaker Boehner had negotiations which did not succeed, since each did not like the other's tax increase/spending cut balance. Then the special congressional deficit-reduction committee was appointed to tackle the issue. It failed. The President then suggested the "fiscal cliff" approach, believing it would give him a negotiating edge and that, in the end, Republicans would cave by Dec. 31 and, at a minimum, accept higher-income tax increases without necessarily gaining the spending cuts they sought. (Bob Woodward's blow-by-blow recent book gives a good account of the Obama-Boehner negotiations and the evolution of the fiscal-cliff approach). It also is wrong to charge that the recession was brought on by "Republican deregulatory zeal." Financial deregulation was mainly undertaken by the Clinton administration. The 2008 Wall Street meltdown cannot be laid to either political party but instead was caused by irresponsible Wall Street dealing in derivatives which the financial firms themselves did not understand.

You can blame Democrats for failing to deal seriously with entitlement spending. You can blame Republicans for rejecting tax increases when they are needed. But the effects of falling off the fiscal cliff, as it was constituted, cannot be minimized. Not only
would every income group get a tax increase in a weak economy.
Payroll-tax relief would be eliminated. So would extension of unemployment benefits. The Alternative Minimum Tax would be applied
to millions of additional taxpayers. Arbitrary, rather than selective, cuts would be made in Defense spending and "discretionary" spending ranging from highway money to food stamps. Most economists, including Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, have warned that going over the cliff could cut as much as 2 percent off 2013 GDP, throwing us back into recession. Not a minor matter.

It's important to recognize that neither the Democratic White House nor GOP House is obliged to bend to the will of the other. That is not how our system works. When governance is divided, as at present,
both White House and House must presume that the other holds its views
honestly and that good-faith bargaining will be necessary to reach
mutually acceptable outcomes on important issues. That has been the historic basis for our governance in such situations. When it is replaced by name-calling and partisan one-upmanship, we fail.

Posted Tue, Jan 1, 3:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow, that is undoubtedly the most smug and condescending claptrap I've read on this site. Political debate has already been "replaced by name calling and partisan one-upmanship" and is already failing. Are you paying attention? There's nothing more boring to read in political commentary than airheaded amoral complacency.

Posted Sat, Dec 29, 9:46 p.m. Inappropriate

The debt ceiling involves commitments already made. Using it to gain political advantage is destructive. Again, priorities not in order.

Posted Sat, Dec 29, 11:58 p.m. Inappropriate

A friend advised me, not too long ago, that in order to be an effective advocate for my point of view, I have to understand opposing points of view as well. It's been a challenge for me to do this, since my natural inclination is to see people who disagree with me as being irrational or operating under corrupt motives. It can also be threatening, since it is a natural inclination to resist offensive ideas in the way that one's immune system would resist a virus. But ideas are harmless; what is dangerous is ignorance and prejudice.

Posted Mon, Dec 31, 12:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting. I've always seen people who disagree with me as drawing conclusions from faulty premises, or reacting emotionally rather than rationally to an issue. But I only consider them corrupt if they're in government.

dbreneman

Posted Sun, Dec 30, 6:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting take on the Debt Ceiling. I believe it was Senator Obama of Illinois who said in 2008 that raising the Debt Ceiling represented a "failure of Leadership". As President, Obama has raised it twice and is now looking for a third. What does that represent? Hipocracy?

Cameron

Posted Mon, Dec 31, 4:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Saying that raising the debt ceiling represents a failure of leadership is much different from supposing that failing to raise the debt ceiling represents leadership. It does not.

Further, not raising the debt ceiling when it clearly must go up due to commitments already made is just pouting, and attempting to monkey wrench our political system. It is anti-democratic in that it represents a failure to honor what we have said we will do - pay our bills.

Posted Mon, Dec 31, 5:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Hence the Obama pouting produces policy that prevents progress on progressive reforms for long term sustainability for the Federal Government. When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Cameron

Posted Mon, Dec 31, 9:53 a.m. Inappropriate

As of this writing, talks are continuing between congressional Republicans and the White House on the eve of the so-called “fiscal cliff.” It is not clear whether an agreement will be reached over the next few days, or if the manufactured crisis atmosphere will continue into the New Year. What is clear, however, is the overall direction of US social policy and the fact that the real target of both sides in the Washington debate is the working class.
It is necessary to demystify the whole process, which is characterized by an extraordinary level of posturing and lies, behind which is concealed a conspiracy against the American people.
The “fiscal cliff” is an artificially erected deadline, laid down as part of previous negotiations and aimed at creating the conditions for implementing unpopular measures that previously would have been considered politically impossible.
If Washington “goes over the cliff,” the impact will be felt most directly by working people, including tax increases that will effectively cut take-home pay for workers by 7 percent and the immediate elimination of unemployment insurance for 2 million long-term jobless, followed soon after by the cutoff of benefits for another 1 million people. Federal workers will face unpaid furloughs, and essential social programs, from energy assistance to child nutrition to education grants, will be hit with across-the-board cuts.
This is only the beginning. The fiscal cliff is the first in a series of artificial deadlines established for the New Year. There will be another deadline in late February over raising the federal debt ceiling—the same issue that became the pretext in August 2011 for a bipartisan agreement to cut over $1 trillion in social spending over the next decade. In March, the “continuing resolution” adopted before the election to authorize federal spending for six months will expire...

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/12/31/pers-d31.html

mikerol

Posted Mon, Dec 31, 10:12 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm a bit surprised at Van Dyke's critical assessment of Obama, but the assessment is correct. Here is my take on this theatrical "fiscal cliff" crisis: Many people have been calling for a "national debate" on the proper size of government in our country. Perhaps this is what such a debate looks like, terribly partisan and acrimonious, and it's just something we must endure to reach some outcome that's unclear at the moment. As Winston Churchill famously said, "You can count on Americans to do the right thing, after they've tried everything else."

The country needs to "go over the cliff". Only such draconian tax increases and spending cuts will enable Americans fully to understand that we need to pay for what we want to receive. For too long the country has been accepting the benefits of government spending without paying the full cost of them, as though they are so much manna from heaven. It's one thing to call rhetorically for higher taxes (especially if they hit only "the rich"), but another thing to feel it in reduced paychecks or tax refunds. My sense is that millions of Americans may well reassess how many government benefits they want to receive once they fully realize what they have to pay for them. But in any case, the populace needs to be put to the test in order to have a genuine "national debate" about the size of government.

zxcvb

Posted Mon, Dec 31, 7:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Well put and spot on.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Jan 2, 5:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Update: And so the fiscal cliff was averted just before the new Congress was sworn in. As Obama intended, it dealt only with tax issues and postponed dealing with spending issues. At the end of the exercise, deficits/debt were increased slightly.

Now the White House, Congress, and American people will be subjected to non-stop negotiations on the spending side. They will be far more difficult for the administration. The next deadline looms at the end of February, when the debt limit again must be raised. We continue
to need a "grand bargain," such as the kind originally contemplated by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission, in which entitlement and broad tax reform are included. So long as they are not included,
White House and Congress will be immersed in one short-term, brutish
confrontation after another, with minimal effect on the long-term debt problem.

Posted Thu, Jan 3, 4:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Since the original "bipartisan" Simpson-Bowles commission could not agree on anything, and split on exactly the same party lines as the current House and Senate, I fail to see how they are any kind of example to be followed.

The actual problem is intransigent republicans, who refuse to do anything at all, except vote for lower taxes for rich people.

Rniemi

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