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.
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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.

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.

"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).

Mainstream media have generally covered the fiscal-cliff debate as if it were simply a continuation of 2012 campaign debate. The main story line has presented Obama as continuing his campaign call to raise taxes on the rich and congressional Republicans as wanting to cut benefits for the aged and poor. The real story is that both tax increases and spending cuts, including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security adjustments, will be necessary to make a dent in long-term debt and short-term deficits.

Obama has trapped himself by failing over four years to credibly address the need for stable long-term funding for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Those programs are in trouble not because of Republicans but because of demographics. There are too few working Americans to finance these programs benefiting retired and poor Americans. The fixes have been well known for decades. The longer they are delayed, the more difficult they will be. Republicans, for their part, have trapped themselves in their commitment to President Reagan's "Read My Lips; No New Taxes!" pledge. When his successor, President George H.W. Bush, took office in 1989 he saw the debt and deficits created during the Reagan years and raised taxes to address them. Now, faced with far deeper deficits and debt, Republicans must accept the necessity of tax increases as well as spending cuts. Both parties are theoretically committed to scrubbing the tax code of loopholes and subsidies that benefit favored activities and economic sectors and cut a huge hole in the federal revenue base. But, absent an improbable grand bargain, such tax reform will be done only slowly.

House Speaker John Boehner tried in mid-December to get support within the House Republican caucus for a package including tax increases for the wealthy. But he was rebuffed by party hardliners and his position has thus been weakened. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, understands consensus politics but is outranked by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a tough partisan. Both Democratic and Republican Senate leaders are strongly partisan.

Obama is the only national leader who can effect a political climate change but, thus far, he has not tried to do it. After his November re-election, he and key White House staff repeated in effect Obama's statement to congressional Republican leaders after his 2008 victory: "I won; you lost." Obama governed on a one-party basis in his first two years but, partly because of it, lost the House to Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections. I presumed at the time that he would emulate President Clinton, after a similar 1994 GOP House takeover, and shift to a more bipartisan approach. But he did not. The following two years, as Lieberman points out, were poisonous.

Obama appears to be misreading his re-election mandate and, thus, his leverage in policymaking. His victory was of historically modest proportion. His total vote was much smaller than in 2008. He won not because of any ringing affirmation of his policies but because of unprecedentedly effective mobilization and turnout of his core political constituencies. History tells us that presidential second terms are notably unproductive. Obama is in no position to bait and defy a Republican-controlled House. House Republicans, with justification, say that they were elected and re-elected too — and by constituents wanting both taxes and spending kept low. The House is the chamber from which all revenue-related legislation must emanate. That is a constitutional reality.

Let us hope that House Republicans have been chastened by their mid-December embarrassment of their own speaker. But, whether they have or have not, the president will have two choices in 2013: Work with House Republicans. Or see ridiculous fiscal-cliff Groundhog Dog repetitions at every juncture where budget and debt-limit deadlines require fresh taxing/spending/borrowing agreements.

Past Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, as well as recently retired officeholders of both parties, have pleaded for a return to the time when they crossed partisan lines on a regular basis to confer and act together on key public issues. Former Senate Democratic Leader George Mitchell, for instance, related last month how he had dinner twice weekly with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Bob Dole, to iron out differences and keep legislation moving. Those meetings do not happen today. In fact, there is too little communication within the two parties at national level. Obama seldom sees Democratic congressional leaders and sees Republican leaders even less. At his 2012 campaign appearances, local-level Democratic leaders were notably absent from the podium. Obama has been a partisan president but one who seldom interacts with his own party, preferring instead to summon leaders of various constituencies to the White House and deliver remarks to them.

The heyday for constructive bipartisanship came, perhaps improbably, during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was a committed Democrat. But he knew from his long congressional experience that bipartisan cooperation was necessary if significant legislation was to be passed and, after passage, not to be endlessly redebated (as Obamacare is being redebated now). After his 1964 electoral victory, LBJ enjoyed huge Democratic majorities in both House and Senate. He had, then, the capacity to pass anything he wanted on a one-party basis. But, in framing his historic civil-rights and Great Society legislation, including both Medicare and Medicaid, he enlisted key Republican leaders in the drafting process, making small concessions to assure their support. He met with interest groups expected to oppose the legislation. The laws passed then are accepted and part of our foundation of governance.

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded last month to the European Union for its decades-long efforts to peacefully unite formerly warring countries of Europe. The "father" of the EU was French statesman Jean Monnet, with whom I had the pleasure of working in the early 1960s. He proceeded from a principle, as he explained it, which could bring consensus from division. As mentioned above, he said that if one or more players were divided by longstanding differences, they would not succeed if they confronted each other from opposite sides of a negotiating table and proceeded from long held positions. If, on the other hand, he said, they sat on the same side of the table, and put divisive issues on the other side, they could succeed.

Monnet's method would serve us well now. Our task is nowhere near as daunting as uniting previously warring countries. We simply need to make some readily apparent taxing and spending adjustments to get responsibly out of a self-made financial bind that is slowing economic and job growth, adding to our borrowing costs and eating our future. We also must address non-economic issues that polarize us. That will require working together in good faith to get the big things right. Both we and our leaders must display what once was known as civic courage. We've shown it before and should be able to show it now.


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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