State of the Union: Obama Goes Back To Plan “A”

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on January 25, 2011

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Barack Obama came to power promising to change Washington.  In his Election Night victory speech in November 2008 Obama said, “In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people.  Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.”

But this Plan A had to be put on hold.  In reaction to the Republican “Just Say, ‘No!’” strategy and pressure from the left, Obama moved to Plan B.  If Plan A involved a search for policies that large numbers of legislators from both parties could support and working outward from the center, Plan B involved assuming almost no Republican support and counting votes from the left inward to get to 218 votes in the House and 51 votes in the Senate — and most often the 60 Senate votes needed to break a Republican filibuster and move each piece of legislation to a floor vote.

Plan B was successful in allowing President Obama and the Democrats to pass historic legislation in the face of unified Republican opposition, but it still remains to be seen whether the strategy can deliver long term change in the direction of public policy.  Republicans were unsuccessful in stopping the legislation in on Capitol Hill, but they were successful in sowing doubt among voters.  In the 2010 election voters moved strongly to take power away from the Democrats and give it to Republicans who were clear in their opposition to health reform, and their larger promise to stop, if not reverse the Democrats’ gains.

Following the November election losses, Obama moved to do something  many believed was impossible in the 111th Congress, passing legislation with a substantial number of Republican votes.  Obama struck a deal with Mitch McConnell to extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone – including the wealthiest Americans that Obama had promised to exempt. The tax deal that also included the extension of unemployment benefits and a payroll tax holiday passed in the Senate 81-19. The lame duck session also yielded passage of the Start Treaty, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and more by sizeable margins. (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal passed the Senate 65-31.)

The lame duck session success proved Plan A was viable just as the election result made Plan B impossible. With Republicans in control of the House, and holding enough seats in the Senate to block progress, Obama can only pass legislation that has support among both Democrats and Republicans.  The State of the Union gives Obama a chance to reiterate his new strategy of necessity.

Political reporters have a pretty clear view of what will be in the State of the Union. Based on a video sent out by the President to his supporters and interviews with his advisors, the expectation is that Obama will continue on the Plan A path as Jackie Calmes and Jeff Zeleny reported in the New York Times, “striking a theme of national unity and renewal as he stresses the need for government spending in key areas and an attack on the budget deficit.”

President Obama goes into the State of the Union riding a bit of a surge in public opinion.  The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll pegs the President’s Job approval rating at 53% with independent voters in net positive territory for the first time in over a year.  Further, voters give Obama the benefit of the doubt in dealing with Republicans while Republicans have the burden of proof to demonstrate that they can deal fairly with the President.

A 55% majority expect Obama to strike the right balance in dealing with Republicans.  Just 26% expect Obama to be too inflexible, and even fewer – 15% expect Obama to be too quick to give in.  Another 55% majority expects the Republicans in Congress to be too inflexible in dealing with Obama.   The same survey had asked the same question in 2007 when Bush faced a new Democratic Congress, and in 1995 when President Clinton faced a new Republican Congress, but voters did not give either of Obama’s predecessors the same advantage in expectations for the coming negotiations.

While many people point to the difficult budgetary and other challenges with despair, there is some reason to believe Obama will have success in seeking bi-partisan majorities.  Simply put: the Democrats can’t afford to say “no deal” any more than the Republicans can. Republicans have been handed a share of power and need things to get better rather than completely fall apart now that they are partly in control.

Democrats have even more to fear from stalemate because their constituents have more to lose if conditions get worse.  In 2009 Republicans could afford to Just Say No and position themselves for the next election in a way that would not make sense now for any Democrat.  Voters are still expecting change and forward movement from the Democrats they elected in 2008, and a break down of government now would not help Democrats return to power.  And in the short term, failure to make progress on jobs, and our budgetary and fiscal problems, will hurt the vulnerable – the poor, working class, and middle class, the elderly, and the young seeking a good career – the most.  These are the groups who count on the Democrats to look out for their interests.

If Democrats want to do more than just take positions on issues in order to go back to voters with a clear choice in 2012, they have to pass legislation, and this means winning Republican votes.  Despite many areas of seemingly irreconcilable policy differences and a dizzying array of intractable problems to be solved, Plan A offers the best, and perhaps the only workable path in 2011 and beyond, and Democrats have little choice other than to embrace the opportunities.

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