Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Obama and Polarization

I bought Woodward's new book on President Obama yesterday. While the focus is on the debt crisis, it starts with the first negotiations between the Congressional leaders and the President-elect over the stimulus.

In their first meeting everyone insisted that they believed in a bipartisan effort to help the nation. Afterwards the Republicans formed a working group which consulted with people outside Congress. At the second meeting they presented their alternative proposal. President Obama looked it over and said that everything in it was doable. He and the Democrats had two problems with the document. One was that it was all tax cuts. The Democrats did not want to give money back to people to spend. They wanted to control how it was spent. The other problem was that it called for cuts in spending elsewhere to pay for the tax cuts. The Democrats wanted to spend more money, not redistribute spending.

Note that from a Kensian viewpoint, targeted tax cuts are just as valid as additional spending. What matters is putting more money into circulation.

This was a crucial moment. Obama had high poll ratings. He could have disappointed the more partisan members of his party and incorporated some of the Republican ideas into the stimulus. Instead he reminded them that "elections have consequences" and that he trumped them.

That was it for bipartisanship. The Democrats decided that they did not need Republican votes so they cut the Republicans out of the process completely. The Republicans could not even get a single amendment to the legislation.

As a result, the Republicans voted unanimously against the bill. The last Republican hold-out planned on voting for it until he realized that his district in New Orleans would receive 1/3 as much money as the average district.

The Democratic narrative for the last three and a half years has been that the evil Republicans decided to vote against Obama in an effort to hurt his presidency. Woodward's account shows that Obama began the hostility, that he was the one who never had any intention of reaching across the aisle to the other party.

It also shows how poorly he works with members of his own party. At one point he called Nancy Pelosi's office and made a long speech. After a while Pelosi muted the phone and went back to work, ignoring Obama completely.

And I am only up to chapter four.

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