Fighting with the GOP is nothing compared to battles that await the president in his own party—over Iraq, health care, and entitlement reform. John Avlon on the coming Democratic wars. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
Southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson passed civil-rights legislation. Nixon went to China. Bill Clinton enacted welfare reform. Often it’s a president’s struggle with his own party that results in real progress. And now it’s President Obama’s relationship with liberal special interests and the House Democrats like Nancy Pelosi that will shape the narrative of his administration, for better and for worse.
Obama has a unique problem: He campaigned against the play-to-the-base politics of the Bush era. But Washington runs according to strict rules that reward hyper-partisanship. Bridging that difference with a Democratic majority in Congress is tricky business, but it is essential to prevent an electoral backlash in 2010.
The biggest Nixon-in-China move for President Obama will be following through on entitlement reform.
The Obama administration hit its first serious stumbling block with House Democrats when it became apparent they had larded up the stimulus bill with billions of dollars of wish-list pork unrelated to job creation. Independent voters in particular swung against the bill—their cynicism primed by TARP’s unaccountable black box and lack of evident impact—creating political cover for Republican opposition. The 9,000 earmarks included in the subsequent $410 billion spending bill muddied the waters of his reform talk, while the combined Keynesian splurge compromised Obama’s call for fiscal responsibility.
It's not a coincidence that some of Obama’s greatest successes to date have come in the face of opposition from the far left. His centrist Cabinet picks—Robert Gates, Jim Jones, Hillary Clinton—drew confused reactions from committed partisans while reassuring the moderate majority.
Obama’s responsible third-way approach to ending the combat phase of the Iraq War managed to depolarize one of the most divisive political issues of this decade. The plan drew reflexive criticisms from Pelosi, Reid & Co., but with 35,000 to 50,000 residual troops remaining in country, even the architects of the surge believed the levels could stabilize the gains made.
The troop escalation in Afghanistan drew doom-mongering from commentators who are always uncomfortable with U.S. military action, while the quiet decision to boycott the UN’s Durban II conference on racism flew in the face of the internationalist crowd while pleasing many neo-conservatives.
This week, Obama announced another substantive policy break with the left. He backed merit pay for teachers as part of an education-reform package. “Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools…[but] if a teacher is given a chance, or two chances, or three chances, and still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching,” he said Tuesday. “I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.”
Merit pay may sound like common sense to most Americans, but in the echo chamber of Democratic political debate driven by the United Federation of Teachers, it is near-heresy. Consider the fact that one in ten delegates to the 2004 convention was a UFT member and you’ll understand why Obama was booed during the campaign by a union crowd for backing the proposal. But in following through on this reform, Obama not only breaks a special-interest logjam, he declares independence from the UFT with a policy backed by the vast majority of Americans.
Bill Clinton famously got taken off-message in his first months by wading into the gays-in-the-military debate. President Obama dodged a similar culture-war bullet by stating that he would not sign the “fairness doctrine” being pushed by some liberal legislators who see policing the airwaves as a way to check the influence of right-wing talk radio. Another fight is looming on the legislative horizon with the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill, also known as “card-check,” would do away with secret ballots for businesses where workers seek to unionize—at a time when right-to-work states are outpacing union-dominated states in comparative economic output. If you believe that secret ballots are a basic building block of democracy, this doesn’t pass the smell test. For the Obama administration, the political cost will not outweigh the political gain.
Now, two bigger fights are looming on the horizon: health-care reform and entitlement reform.
Health-care reform has been attempted by three Democratic presidents: Truman, Carter, and Clinton. Three decades ago, Carter put forward a public-private plan focused on catastrophic insurance, saying, “The idea of all or nothing has been pursued now for nearly three decades. No one has benefited from that.” But Ted Kennedy introduced a competing universal-health-care proposal based on Canada's single-payer system and dismissed Carter’s phased-in approach as "too inequitable." Consequently, no comprehensive healthcare legislation was passed and what was then 18 million uninsured Americans has now ballooned to 48 million.
The dangers of this divide are still in play, with some of the same actors in the game. Obama has cleverly shifted the rhetoric for the rationale of health-care reform to fiscal responsibility and international competitiveness in the global economy. Following through on the promise of a public-private solution with minimal big government mandates will be essential to avoiding yet another patented perfect-is-the-enemy-of-the-good Democratic defeat. Areas ripe for post-partisan negotiation include allowing individuals to purchase insurance across state lines and including medical-malpractice reform in any package to reduce the costs of defensive medicine while winning doctors’ support for the plan.
But the biggest Nixon-in-China move for President Obama will be following through on entitlement reform. Despite liberal sacred-cow status, it is the looming cost of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare that casts the longest shadow over the U.S. economy. You can’t talk about an era of responsibility while kicking the costs of an aging population’s entitlements to the next generation. When Presidents Clinton and Bush attempted to address Social Security’s impending insolvency, it got caught up in partisan politics as usual and went nowhere. We can’t afford to pass the buck any longer and President Obama is the best positioned of all to enact real reform. He’ll likely appoint a bipartisan commission and a BRAC-style up-or-down vote on the entire package. The stiffest opposition he will face will come from the left—with a few predictable ideologues on the far-right complaining that the reforms don’t go far enough. But those are the most worthwhile fights when you’re attempting to do what’s right and responsible for the long-term national interest.
Some have counseled Obama to abandon his post-partisan aims and play the Washington game of politics as ideological blood sport. But he has read the American people correctly—it is Congress that has the catching up to do. Obama cannot let his presidency be defined by the liberal House leadership. Writing the post-partisan playbook will require repeated strategic declarations of independence from the far left.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon was director of speechwriting and deputy director of policy for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as chief speechwriter for then-Mayor Giuliani.