The Obama utopia, to govern for all

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 8, 2010


If you seek to govern for the benefit of all, you will end up ruling for the benefit of no one. The phrase, one of the many dictums attributed to the political class in the old Mexican one party system between 1934 and 2000, helps us understand President Barack Obama’s key decisions after the midterm election defeat. The man who reached the presidency with a message of hope, and whose inexperience was once heralded as a virtue, could use some advice from Mexican realpolitik. In seeking to compromise with Republicans on tax issues, Obama abandoned his liberal base, reneged on a key campaign promise and made excessive concessions getting little in return.  


Obama became President because he symbolized the nation’s desire to leave behind racial tensions and unite after a divisive presidency at a time of economic distress. However, in politics, as in football (the type you play with your hands, not soccer), your offensive team cannot be the same as your defensive team. Seasoned politicians normally say that campaigns are in poetry, but governing is in prose. Startlingly, because he was so successful at campaigning and, as his critics rightly denounced, he had so little experience governing, Obama seems more inclined to govern doing what he knows best, poetry.


Unfortunately for him, people expect Presidents to govern, that is, to make the transition from poetry to prose in a coherent manner. Thus, when leaders make decisions, even if controversial, they must not forget their campaign promises. In giving in to Republican pressure, Obama seems to believe that his poetic campaign needs not correspond with his governing prose.


The compromise with Republicans on extending for two years the Bush tax cuts announced by Obama is a blatant reversal on a key campaign promise. Obama repeatedly pledged that he would end the Bush tax cuts for wealthiest Americans. Given that Republicans recently won the midterm election on a platform of fiscal responsibility, Obama should have called their bluff in negotiating tax issues. True, gridlock would have resulted in going back to pre 2001 tax levels—which would mean a tax increase on all Americans. Rather than pressure Republicans until the end of the lame duck congressional session, President Obama—using a football analogy—decided to punt the ball on third down. The arguments used by the administration to justify this early concession was that the lame duck Congress would be free to take on other key legislative issues—like repealing the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy for gays in the military. Yet, after extracting such a valuable concession, it is unlikely that Republicans will now compromise. Instead, they will delay debate on key legislation until a new, more Republican Congress, takes office in January.


President Obama believes that Americans will value his effort to compromise with Republicans more than his reversal on a key campaign promise. He should considered President George H. Bush reversal on a campaign promise on taxes. In 1988, Bush promised that he would respond to Democrats pressure to raise taxes with: “Read my lips. No new taxes.”  Bush’s compromise with democrats in 1990 triggered the presidential bid by independent fiscally conservative billionaire Ross Perot. In the end, the division within the right helped Bill Clinton to win the presidency in 1992. It is unlikely that Obama will now see a challenge from the left in 2012. Yet, it is clear that Obama’s promises will carry much less weight in the next presidential election.


Obama’s campaign pledge to repeal the Bush tax cuts was a specific promise while his promise to build bipartisanship was inevitably contingent on the Republicans wanting to compromise. In conceding to keep the Bush tax cuts for two more years, Obama was the only one compromising.  He claimed that he extracted a key concession from Republicans, extending unemployment benefits for 11 months. Yet, even an unsophisticated observer knows that eleven months is less than 2 years and the amount of foregone government revenues is much higher than the funds secured for unemployment benefits.  


Though there are good economic arguments in favor of extending the tax cuts, Obama rejected them and provided comparably solid arguments in favor of reducing the budget deficit. Moreover, because he condemned Bush economic policies as the cause of the crisis, in acquiescing to the Republican position he put himself up against accusations of flip-flopping. 


Because his conciliatory style failed to produce results when Democrats controlled the House and had a commanding majority in the Senate, now that Republicans have gained control of the House and picked up 6 seats in the Senate, Obama needed to call the Republican bluff right away. After he failed to do it, Republicans are smiling and anticipating a much easier ride in the next two years. If Obama already abandoned a key campaign promise before the lame duck session expires, it is unlikely that he will put up fight on key issues after January. Not surprisingly, Democrats are disappointed and disillusioned. This is not the kind of hope they thought they could believe in.