There is a malaise in Washington that’s spreading across the country. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, “Americans [do] not give Mr. Obama high marks for his handling of issues”—even though they largely, at times overwhelmingly, agree with his positions on background checks for gun sales and a combination of tax increases and spending cuts to rein in the federal deficit.
The disconnect is sharp; the frustration, the sense of ennui palpable from Capitol Hill to California. You could fairly call it the Obama malaise, but it’s not his fault. It’s his very existence, his presence in the Oval Office, that fuels a nihilistic opposition, driving obstruction and seeding an increasingly disillusioned national mood.
That mood is distinctly different from the malaise that prompted Jimmy Carter to his self-pitying crisis-of-confidence speech in the summer of 1979. The crisis he identified then was not merely doubt about national leadership, but something “deeper, deeper”—a “loss of faith” on the part of the American people. He seemed to be saying that they had let the country, and him, down. He urged his fellow citizens “to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying”—to stop whining and to “say something good” about America.
The speech was the profound misdiagnosis of a faltering presidency—a misdiagnosis that is decidedly not the problem today. It’s government that’s failing the people, and not the other way around. Dysfunction in Washington—and the resulting disillusionment that reaches far beyond—are rooted in the animating enmity of a Republican Party that resents Barack Obama’s rule and would ruin him at almost any price.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) let the elephant out of the bag after the Senate failed to break the filibuster against the background-checks bill he had cosponsored in defiance of the National Rifle Association. “In the end,” he confessed, “it didn’t pass because we’re so politicized. There were some on my side who didn’t want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done.” They opposed it “just because the president wanted to do it.”
So it’s gone on the budget, the sequester, energy policy, on and on. Toomey’s candor confounds the now conventional meme, propagated by Maureen Dowd and played on in the media echo chamber, that “Obama thinks he [can] do his thing from the balcony”—that he doesn’t schmooze, consort, or imbibe enough with members of Congress. Dowd’s column was headlined “Bottoms Up, Lame Duck.” And The Washington Post recycled the notion: Obama’s “not particularly good at ... forging personal ties with other politicians.”
None of the critics has explained explicitly how the president could have gathered 60 votes for background checks other than vague suggestions that he should’ve been more involved—or more like, say, Lyndon Johnson.
But no matter what they drank with Obama, for Republicans, compromising with him would be the equivalent of gulping down the hemlock of a Tea Party primary. The president understands the situation. He jabbed back at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: some folks ask—“‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ Really? Why don’t YOU get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” A shot glass of bourbon won’t make the legislation go through. And the more Obama puts his stamp on an idea, the more involved he is, the more adamant the Republican resistance.
As for LBJ as the beau ideal of persuasion to whom this president should aspire—well, that’s more pop history than hardheaded political strategy. Johnson was preternaturally skillful at twisting arms and bending wills—sometimes he leaned in so far, a senator was tilted back at a 30-degree angle—but they were mostly Democratic arms. At the height of his success, he had two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress, and he could depend on moderate, actually liberal, Republicans like Maryland’s Charles Mathias and Jacob Javits and John Lindsay from New York. And then there was the grandiloquent Republican leader Everett Dirksen. Him, you could have a drink with, and he’d help you out—JFK with the ratification of the nuclear-test-ban treaty; LBJ with the passage of civil rights.
Similarly, in 1986 Democrats were willing to shape and enact tax reform with Ronald Reagan, who didn’t remember most of their names, let alone their preferences in distilled spirits.
Those days are gone—and McConnell is no Dirksen. The plain truth is that this Congress may not “accomplish” anything much beyond triggering recurring crises over issues like raising the national debt ceiling. Step back from the news cycles reporting the possibilities of progress and think back on what usually comes next—the reality that things fall apart; the center will not hold.
I have to doubt that even the legislation President Obama sounds most hopeful about, comprehensive immigration reform, will ever make it to his desk this year—or next. Here he has sought to soft-pedal his own visibility, leaving it to the so-called Gang of Eight to negotiate the bill in the Senate. Florida’s Marco Rubio, the GOP capo of the gang, nonetheless wobbles under pressure from right-wing forces that could shatter his presidential prospects in 2016.
Rubio’s latest warning: reform “won’t pass,” and presumably he won’t push it, if it lets gay as well as straight Americans secure green cards for their immigrant partners. In short, Republicans are ready to excuse perpetuating discrimination against immigrants and Hispanics by invoking discrimination against the LGBT community.
Even if comprehensive reform survives the Senate, the House of Representatives is where good ideas go to die. GOP members there aim to break the bill into pieces, and they prize the punitive parts. In any event, the debate there will traffic in stereotypes and prejudice. And if Obama does keep a low profile, a lot of Republicans will stand against reform anyway just because, as Toomey revealed, they realize the president favors it. In the end, a decent bill may depend on John Boehner risking his speakership by letting it pass with Democratic votes and a minority of his own members. Don’t bet on that.
The GOP leadership is already losing control of its restless, dissatisfied caucus. The consequence, as Politico describes it, is a “House in chaos,” where any GOP proposal on the debt ceiling will be rife with reactionary slash-and-shred riders. Hey folks, Obama does have to sign the legislation. But Republicans don’t care—and the leadership can’t afford to care. They can, and often do, welcome the absence of an agreement—for example, on the sequester.
This attitude reflects both austerity ideology and political calculation. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this year the sequester will knock 0.6 percent off economic growth and slow hiring in a recovering economy. The GOP would like to turn the 2014 midterms into protest vote against a lingering downturn; they did it in 2010, and tried it in 2012. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the president are ready to fight this out fiercely with strong candidates, strong fundraising, and Obama’s formidable social-media and get-out-the-vote operations. They just could defy the history that holds that an incumbent president’s party has to lose congressional seats in the midterm, even more so during his second term. And public opinion is not where it was in the dissatisfied days of 2010. Republican intransigence is now so transparent, the extremism so apparent, that only 23 percent of Americans in the ABC/Washington Post survey said they believed the GOP “is in touch with the concerns of most people in the United States today.”
This points down the road to Republican defeat in the next presidential campaign. Right now in New Hampshire, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio stand at more than double the primary support for conceivably electable candidates like Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, conservatives who just aren’t pure enough. As a political matter, Democrats can rejoice in this kind of GOP, which will probably end up handing them one and more than likely two more terms in the White House—and, horror of horrors, probably to Hillary—or, if not her, Joe.
The bottom line: why would a GOP that won’t save itself as a presidential party bring itself to bargain reasonably and save some semblance of the president’s program? Instead the president has to govern with the Republican House and filibustering Republicans senators who, as we saw when businessmen grumbled about sequester-caused delays on their first-class flights, are interested in little other than the government of the privileged, for the wealthy, and by the 1 percent. And of course something else—stopping Obama at every turn.
I will be happy if events prove me too pessimistic, but the political atmosphere in Washington is rancid. The cycle of recrimination and inaction is chronic. The malaise is palpable. And there may be an even more apt metaphor. Right now in D.C., every day is Groundhog Day. Every day is another deadlock.