Fans of centrist governance were disappointed this evening as President Barack Obama strongly signaled a return to the polarizing ideological battles of years and campaigns past. Obama’s first use of Air Force One as President was to travel to the House Democratic retreat in Williamsburg and deliver the most partisan speech of his young presidency. The President let loose with familiar campaign talking points such as the “failed policies of the past” in reference to Republican opposition to the stimulus package moving through Congress.
The Democratic retreat was slated to be closed to the media until this evening, when all the networks were invited in to record Obama’s speech. The clear intent of the move was to control the media cycle through the weekend and perhaps mark a clean break from the relentless media focus on unpopular aspects of the House and Senate packages. Whether Obama will succeed with tonight’s speech remains an open question. However, tonight marks the end of the rhetoric of bipartisanship which played a prominent role in the campaign.
Faced with an erosion of 10-15% support of his stimulus package over the past few weeks, Obama faced his first political crisis and responded by launching into starkly partisan rhetoric while also pushing the virtues of the present make up of the bill. A bipartisan group of Senators have been discussing the package and trying to work out a compromise, unified by their distaste for some of the questionable spending. Candidate Obama would welcome these bipartisan negotiations on such vitally important issues and also promised to bring such partisans together with a new pragmatic, post-partisan governance.
Instead of speaking out substantively with his vision of a bipartisan compromise in the Senate, Obama has chosen to retreat to partisan talking points coupled with a demand to pass the package immediately or face catastrophe. By refusing to take a substantive stance of what a bipartisan compromise should look like, yet lambasting any opponents of the present Democrat-written bill, Obama has set a troubling model for future legislation that may require bipartisan cooperation to pass, such as immigration reform.
From this point forward for the Administration, we’ll be seeing less of the GOP-Obama meetings on substantive policy and more Obama speeches geared towards firing up his base and pushing the growth of his 13 Million person email list from the campaign. Independents and centrists must give Obama credit for at least attempting to change the tenor in Washington over the past few weeks by engaging in outreach to Republicans and bringing GOP Senator Judd Gregg into the cabinet. Unfortunately, Obama has chosen to avoid spending political capital to support and perhaps lead the bipartisan group of Senators to forge a centrist compromise by laying out a detailed vision of the final bill with input from the bipartisan group. Instead, the bills written exclusively by ascendant Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid will very likely become law.
Beyond the perhaps inevitable end of the rhetoric of post-partisanship, the sad truth for fiscally conservative independents is that the largest spending bill in American history is going to be passed without the standard, lengthy scrutiny applied to normal appropriations bills and without any serious input from centrist politicians. Many objective analyses of the present stimulus package recommend substantial reductions in questionable spending and other major alterations to maximize to possibility of actual job creation from the bill. Rasmussen and Gallup polls show significant public support for such major changes. Based on tonight’s speech, any such coolheaded, pragmatic reworking of the present package appears off the table, with perhaps a window-dressing compromise to “reduce” the outlay to around 800-850 Billion in the offing.
Obama’s return to partisan attacks on republicans and deployment of his speechmaking greatness to push the present stimulus package will likely blunt the faltering public faith in the entire enterprise. The application of raw political power by Obama today teaches the moderates of the Senate, some of which formed the bipartisan group of 17 senators, that Obama will not support future pragmatic, centrist compromises but instead push the conventional democratic view. The new lightening rod in partisan politics is the Democratic stimulus package, and the bill’s effect on the economy will dominate partisan debate for years to come as the Age of Partisanship begins again.