Obama will have to seek consensus solutions

The White House thought it was acting in the people's interests, and that the people just didn't realize it. That attitude won't work now.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barrack Obama: Democrats are in political trouble.

The White House thought it was acting in the people's interests, and that the people just didn't realize it. That attitude won't work now.

"For the people, against the people." — Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey.

As chance would have it, former Sen. Slade Gorton and I provided the entertainment at Wednesday's Seattle Downtown Rotary meeting with a post-mortem of the Tuesday election results. Somewhat to our mutual surprise, we had almost identical analyses, although from different vantage points. (Both Gorton and I were once known as avid partisans, by the way, but now seem to have met at a moderate, unpartisan crossroads).

The Republican gains in the U.S. House of Representatives were historic. I made the additional point that gains of over 60 seats were particularly impressive since redistricting and gerrymandering in recent years had made many House seats "safe" for incumbents and non-competitive.

We agreed on the following points:

  • Republican gains at state and local level also were impressive and will have an important effect next year when post-2010-census redistricting takes place.
  • The GOP gains were not an endorsement of the Republican Party or of GOP policies.  Rather, they were triggered by public dissatisfaction about a continuing weak economy and what amounted to severe Democratic overreach with the stimulus package, health-sector remake, and interventions in the banking, housing, and auto sectors. They also flowed from public alarm about federal deficits and rising public debt.
  • President Obama and congressional leaders of both parties should seek ways immediately to take common action on extension of the Bush tax cuts and to use recommendations of a Social Security/Medicare commission to jointly reduce spending levels in those two expensive entitlement programs. I suggested, additionally, that Obama should take the initiative to add tort reform provisions and to authorize selling of health insurance across state lines (both probably acceptable to a majority of Democrats) as adds-on to his 2010-passed health-care plan, thus offering a positive olive branch to Republicans.
  • The national electoral map has returned to where it was in 2000. That is, Democrats have political control of coastal blue states. Republicans control the red states in-between.

I made the case that, whether conscious of it or not, the Obama White House had too greatly adopted Kemal Ataturk's attitude that it was acting "for the people, against the people." That is, it was doing things to benefit the American people that it believed the people themselves were too benighted or stupid to recognize as in their interest. The prime example: Jamming through a one-party-drafted health care scheme, which a clear majority of the American people opposed.

Earlier in the day, Obama had presided at a day-after press conference in the White House. I had expected him to begin by saying: "The people have spoken. I say to the people: I hear you and have gotten your message." But, instead, he made clear that he placed principal blame for Democratic losses on the continuing slack economy. His recovery measures, he said, had not had time to work satisfactorily. He bridled at suggestions that the losses amounted to a rejection of his agenda of the past two years.

The president, however, will have no option but to seek consensus, bipartisan solutions to national problems from this point forward. Republicans now possess sufficient congressional power to block any proposal he makes unilaterally. Obama's situation now is not unlike that of President Bill Clinton following the Republican takeover of the House in the 1994 elections.  

Personal observations after Tuesday's Democratic losses:

  • I regret the defeat of several senior congressional Democrats, including Sen. Russ Feingold and several key committee chairs, Reps. Jack Spratt, Ike Skelton, and Jim Oberstar, who deserved better after long public service. Sen. Blanche Lincoln also went down, in large part because of the labor movement's destructive attempt to purge her in the Arkansas Democratic primary. In Arizona, where I spend part of my time, I was dismayed by the defeats of Reps. Anne Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell, two intelligent, constructive Democrats who were unseated by far less qualified first-time Republican candidates.
  • I also regret that Sen. Harry Reid and current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi apparently will continue in 2011 as the public face and voice of congressional Democrats. Pelosi has not yet made her intentions known about 2011. Most prior speakers, after having sustained such losses, have simply retired from Congress. Others have continued to serve as ordinary Members. Only a handful returned to serve as leaders of their now-minority caucuses. Pelosi, though, would never cede leadership to her deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer, a longstanding rival. Moreover, the heaviest losses Tuesday among congressional Democrats were among moderate, so-called Blue Dogs from marginal districts. Those remaining are for the most part liberals who have been Pelosi loyalists all along. So the odds strongly favor her re-election as House Democratic leader next January.
  • The Obama White House and Cabinet will get more shaking up, although the quality of the replacement team remains a big question. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is returning to Chiago to run for mayor. Counselor David Axelrod is returning to Chicago to begin organizing Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. On the financial-economic side, White House economic czar Larry Summers and Obama's original Council of Economic Advisors chair and Office of Managment and Budget director also have departed.  Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is rumored exiting early in 2011. Defense Secretary Bob Gates, perhaps the ablest member of the Obama Cabinet, has announced he, too, will depart in 2011. Obama's national security advisor, Gen. Jim Jones, already has departed and been replaced by a capital political operator who formerly lobbied for Fannie Mae.  A member of the Rotary Club audience Wednesday noted the almost complete absence in the administration of appointees with business or practical economic experience. I agreed with him that this omission should be corrected pronto.
  • Foreign policy issues, not important in Tuesday's elections, will become increasingly important in 2011. The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are supposed to wind down next year. But will those countries be stable by then? If they are not stable, will Obama undertake a withdrawal anyway — in the knowledge that neither country involves vital American interests?
  • The Tea Party movement, so important in Tuesday's elections, brought energy and voter turnout to Republican candidates. On the other hand, Tea Party-backed Republican Senate nominees in Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado ran so erratically in those states that Democrats held seats they otherwise likely would have lost to moderate, mainstream Republicans beaten in GOP primaries by Tea Partiers. I expect the movement and its agenda, as with prior such movements, to become subsumed within the two major parties in 2011 and not be a 2012 factor.

Will a Democratic rival challenge Obama for the 2012 presidential nomination? It is far too soon to tell. If, by late 2011, the president's approval ratings are down, the economy remains flat, and the country is perplexed by foreign interventions and offshore issues, a 2012 challenger likely will emerge. In a more favorable political climate, however, Obama could rally just as Bill Clinton rallied during 1995 and positioned himself for re-election in 1996.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.