When the going gets tough ...
Despite his best efforts and generally noble intentions, President Barack Obama is rapidly discovering how difficult it is to earn the support of the opposition party in Congress. As discussed in my last column, Obama and his staff have made several bipartisan gestures — most notably Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. These include several meetings, both at the White House and on the Hill, between the president and the Republican leadership in Congress to discuss their concerns about the stimulus bill. Specifically, these included their reservations about the bill's designation of federal funding for birth control and family planning — which was eventually removed from the legislation — as well as its professed lack of tax cuts, and the nomination of Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., for the post of secretary of commerce. Two weeks ago, as I wrote, Washington certainly appeared to be on its way to the sort of post-partisan era the president has continuously envisioned, but it now seems many of his efforts to create a more inclusive atmosphere may ultimately prove fruitless — at least in the short term. For example, Sen. Gregg withdrew his name Thursday from consideration for secretary of commerce, citing "irresolvable conflicts" between himself and the Democratic leadership regarding the details of the stimulus package and how best to conduct the 2010 census, creating yet another embarrassing setback for Obama in his endeavor to fill the Cabinet. Further, virtually no Republicans in congress voted for the stimulus — save three in the Senate — despite the eventual inclusion of several GOP-backed amendments in the latest version of the bill, which was passed in the House of Representatives twice without a single Republican vote.
In contrast with the considerable political resistance it faces on Capitol Hill, the Obama plan is favored by a decisive majority of Americans. According to a recent Gallup poll, 59 percent of respondents support the plan and just 33 percent oppose it. Obama toured some areas of the country last week most affected by the financial crisis in order to drum up popular support for the stimulus plan. Among the most high profile of these appearances was in Ft. Myers, Fla., where the president took the stage with Republican Gov. Charlie Crist who supports the plan. Thanks in part to these actions and the strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the bill received final passage Thursday and was signed into law by Obama yesterday afternoon at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. In spite of the amount of popular support the measure is receiving from the American populace, many Republicans have continued to criticize it as misguided and fundamentally flawed. Others in the GOP feel they were not included enough in the formulation of the legislation; to a certain extent, this is a valid complaint. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did not allow much oppositional input on early drafts of the bill. To level such criticisms against Obama, however, is utterly ridiculous; the president went out of his way to compromise and earn the GOP's votes — most of which he did not even need to get the bill passed. While some of them have legitimate philosophical issues with the plan, most Republicans appear to be voting against Obama purely for the sake of, well, voting against Obama. The party's leadership vacuum in Washington has essentially made the ineffably obnoxious and ill-informed political pundit Rush Limbaugh its de facto leader. This is a man whose foremost political hope is that Obama fails at anything and everything he attempts to do as president. While such rhetoric may play well with Republicans and their base, not one of them to date has spelled out a viable alternative to the Democrats' plan. Incessantly demanding "more tax cuts!" for no discernable reason does not constitute a comprehensive economic policy. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued Sunday on ABC that, as a result of Obama's plan, the country is "screwed." While all this animosity toward the new administration is to be expected, the GOP must, writes conservative columnist David Frum, "[start] articulating an actual alternative to Obamanomics" if it is to maintain any credibility or relevance.
There has been much said of Obama's desire to maintain a Lincoln-esque "team of rivals" to help him in formulating policy. This is proving to be a far more difficult task than anticipated. Armed with the knowledge that he will not personally be able to win over every vote he needs — or wants for the sake of solidarity — Obama opted last week to take his case directly to the people in order to get them to pressure their representatives in Congress to support the plan. The president's ability to build grassroots support, as he demonstrated beyond a doubt on Nov. 4, is tremendous and will prove to be a crucial tool in the months to come. As Ben Goddard of The Hill writes, "Yes, he ran on bipartisanship. But President Obama needs votes in the tough battles ahead. That likely means focusing his efforts on Democrats and centrist GOP members, like the three senators who supported his stimulus package." The time for going out on a limb, it appears, is over. A more limited approach to bipartisanship now appears more appropriate. The nation needs real results right now and the president's attempts at true post-partisanship, while commendable, must take a back seat to more pressing matters.
Josh Baker is a Rutgers College senior majoring in sociology. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com. His column, "Zeitgeist," runs on alternate Wednesdays.