Published April 11, 2011
It occurs to me that President Obama owes a debt of gratitude to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Why? Their cooperation to advance a resurgent conservative movement keeps saving President Obama from himself.
For the first two years of his administration, the president's intentions, instincts, and indecisiveness stood in the way of what the country was expecting from hope and change. Over that time, a new wave of public opinion rose, ultimately cresting and swamping the White House in the November 2010 mid-term elections in which President Obama suffered an historic defeat. That wave was considered fleeting by many political pundits, and was framed as weak in strength by the liberal ruling class. The Tea Party movement was dismissed as something to be placated and ignored, rather than taken seriously and addressed.
Obama’s seeming entertainment of Tea Party ideals must have made Democrats cringe. How they must have held their noses and averted their eyes as it looked like he’d chosen his political future over his principles. He couldn’t really mean it, they thought—triangulation was simply the best way to pull one over on the Tea Party supporters.
Six months later, the conservative movement is growing. The Democratic communications machine churns out tiresome talking points which that lack both new ideas and a serious tone. How people snorted when they heard the accusations that Republicans were waging a war on women, and that they wanted seniors to eat cat food and to go without health care. C'mon guys—that is so 1990s. The public isn’t falling for that one anymore.
Yet despite the shallow roots of the president's moves on a few issues, it is Boehner and McConnell who have delivered the results (even though the Democrats hold both the Senate and the White House). Incredibly, it is on these issues that President Obama is taking cover—and credit.
Take, for example, the Bush tax cuts. President Obama spoke so disdainfully of the tax cuts for years, that it was with mouths agape that Republicans watched him sign their extension…and then have the gall to tout it as a major achievement of his own doing after the deal was signed! The press, including many conservatives looking for any way to praise the president, marveled at his successful lame duck session in December 2010. "Fleeting" doesn't begin to describe that success.
Then came the spending cuts demanded by over 60 percent of the American people. While the public has demanded cuts before, this time they're serious. In the most recent debate, some are disappointed that Boehner didn't get 100 percent of what he first asked for ($61 billion in cuts). But negotiating to get 80 percent of what you originally wanted, by any measure, is good negotiating. And now, after saying that spending cuts would ruin job growth (what little of it there is), President Obama is extolling the virtues of being thrifty. He's even scheduled a "major policy address" on the deficit—clearly a response to the widely praised FY 2012 budget released by House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) last week.
In averting a government shutdown, Republicans also passed a measure President Obama originally opposed, but could ultimately help him in his bid for re-election. Boehner was able to include an extension of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, the one that is so popular with the low-income families who depend on it to send their children to better schools, yet so despised by the teacher's union. Obama chose to side with the unions, a position considered shameful, even by some Democrats. Despite being mocked by Democrats for crying over children’s education, Boehner has fought tirelessly to include programs like this one in the budget. I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama tries to take credit for this, too.
And there's more ahead. Because Boehner and McConnell are refusing to put through the South Korea and Panama Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) without including the agreement for Colombia, the president won't be able to meet his self-prescribed goals of increasing exports and imports.
Watch in the next few weeks as the White House seeks to cut a deal and get this behind them–but also watch how they'll include it in speeches touting his accomplishments: a Colombia FTA.
Of course, I don't expect President Obama to thank the Republican leaders on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue any time soon. But if he plays his cards right, he'll be able to hide behind their results and pretend their accomplishments are his own.