Don’t look now, but the presidential election of 2012 is less than a year away. Of course, if you follow politics at all, you know that the campaign has been fully engaged since last summer. In fact, it probably took off with the creation in August of the Congressional Super-Committee, which just this week ended its failed attempt to find a way to cut $1.2 trillion from the nation’s debt.
That fiasco is another story of course, but it didn’t take long for both parties to play politics with the inability of twelve elected representatives to strike a deal that everyone agreed just had to be struck.
In the end, any possible deal was doomed as long as the Democrats insisted on an increase in the taxes paid by the nation’s wealthiest individuals. The current Republican Party will absolutely not go there, and whether it’s because of past pledges made to Grover Norquist, commitments to big campaign contributors, or just because they can’t accept it ideologically, the Republican mantra is “no tax increases,” and they are going to live or die with that stance.
And they very well might die of it in terms of presidential politics, especially if their ultimate nominee buys into the position.
The presidency is certainly within their grasp, but a campaign that insists on protecting the very highest income earners from any increase in taxes is not likely to appeal greatly to those who fall considerably short of that lofty measure of success.
For his part, the incumbent made clear this week that he isn’t going to let the issue go away. By promising to veto any bill that attempts to reverse the automatic cuts that are to take effect in 2013, President Obama gave notice that he thinks the issue is a winner for his team. And he’s probably right.
The Republicans will play heavily on the idea that his has been a failed presidency (buoyed in that argument by unemployment rates around 9 percent, as they still figure to be next fall), but Obama can make a case for himself that isn’t quite as terrible as his critics might want it to make it appear.
No, he hasn’t done enough, hasn’t been strong or decisive enough, and hasn’t been adept enough at playing the legislative or the political games the way Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton did in earlier times. But he can make a pretty strong case (a la Harry Truman in 1948) that the Republicans have obstructed his efforts at every turn. And in that claim, he’ll have recent history on his side.
In fact, from the moment Obama took office, the Republicans in the Senate, essentially in lockstep, used the filibuster to thwart anything they didn’t like, and for all but two months in 2009, they had the votes to do it. To be specific, the Minnesota race (ultimately won by Al Franken) wasn’t decided until July of ’09. Only then did the Democrats get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster by the Republicans. And they lost that 60th vote two months later when Ted Kennedy died (ultimately to be replaced by Republican Scott Brown).
So, for all of two months, Obama theoretically had total control of Congress. But even then he had to deal with the conservative wing of his party (e.g., Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Lieberman), which meant he had to keep any measure sufficiently palatable to those folks to get their votes.
Notwithstanding that permanent legislative roadblock, Obama has some impressive achievements that he can and most assuredly will point to as the campaign heats up.
Among those accomplishments are these legislative victories:
o He pushed through the 2009 stimulus bill. It wasn’t big or strong enough to create a robust recovery, but it did help keep the recession from continuing, and, despite fears of a double dip recession, the country has had modest economic growth ever since.
o He prevailed on the auto industry bailout, which saved General Motors and Chrysler from complete dissolution. The likes of Mitt Romney may disagree with the policy of saving failing industrial giants, but Obama fought for and got the bailout, and those companies (and the thousands of jobs they are responsible for) are now thriving as opposed to being defunct.
o He got his health-care reform bill enacted into law (with absolutely no Republican support). It isn’t the kind of reform many on the left wanted, but it will (assuming it survives the Supreme Court’s review of its constitutionality) completely change the way health care is delivered in the country and will probably pave the way for a more socialized approach to health care in coming generations.
o He got Dodd-Frank passed. Many on the left aren’t big fans of it, but it is a major legislative achievement in terms of shaking up the financial industry, and, again, it received almost zero Republican support.
And his foreign affairs report card is even stronger. In particular, he has kept the country free from terrorist attack and got bin Laden and several other top al Qaeda leaders. In fact, his decision to give the “go” order on bin Laden alone was an act of courage that might well be a hallmark of his tenure in office.
He also made the right call on Libya. Many on the right and left (for differing reasons) opposed the initial effort and his commitment not to let it become America’s war, but he was right in his handling of it.
Other achievements, both foreign and domestic can and will certainly be portrayed favorably in the coming campaign, and for many, they will resonate when compared with the alternative the Republicans are likely to offer.
Still, stripped of campaign glitz and hype, Obama’s presidency has been mediocre. He took office with great popular support, and he has lost that support through ineffective leadership and inept handling of the bully pulpit. But his tenure has not been without successes and it also hasn’t featured anything that could be considered disastrously negative (e.g., Buchanan’s failure to confront the pending Civil War, Hoover’s failure to tackle the Great Depression, Johnson’s war in Viet Nam, Bush’s in Iraq).
It isn’t a record that will get him a spot on Mount Rushmore, but if he runs an aggressive campaign against the intransigent Republican “no tax on the rich” mantra, it just might get him a second term.