Obama and Congress: A chance for the grand bargain

Obama and Congress: A chance for the grand bargain

As 2012 winds down, the action in Washington is now all in, or with, Congress. Yes, Barack Obama won the presidential election convincingly; yes, the Democrats held their majority and added to it in the Senate; and yes, too, they added slightly to the strength of their minority position in the House of Representatives. But all of this will be insufficient for that party to have its way on every – or even most – issues unless it finds ways to win over some Republicans too. J BROOKS SPECTOR examines four battles facing Obama.

There are going to be battles over a whole range of contentious – and even some not so controversial – topics. But, above all, the big ones, at least between now and Barack Obama’s second term inaugural on 20 January, are going to be the impending “fiscal cliff”, nominations for a selection of key senior officials for Obama’s next four years, the aftermath of the events in Benghazi in September 2012 – and gun control.

A year ago, Democrats and Republicans in Congress proved their inability to reach the “grand bargain” they all said they wanted. Such a bargain would come on the national budget to bring down discretionary spending and forward commitments to the growing cost of entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; reach agreement on tax reform by closing tax loopholes, changing the marginal tax rates, and revoking or maintaining some or all of the Bush administration’s across-the-board tax cuts; rein in defence spending; and establish a long-term compromise on the debt ceiling.

With the president’s reluctant support, they passed legislation that provided for such stringent budget cuts in the coming years that the Congress would be so frightened by its handiwork they would be forced to work things out before the beginning of January 2013 when the Draconian cuts would begin to work their way through the federal budget. Economists’ predictions were that the actual imposition of the fiscal cliff could shove the still-frail economy right back into a recession – with other unpredictable but certainly less than pleasant knock-on effects worldwide.

Now, at the very end of 2012, Congress is straining to finish things up so the members can at least break away for the Christmas holiday. The negotiations between President Obama and Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner – and between Boehner and the more recalcitrant, more conservative, spending-hating members of his Republican tribe – have been on going, but not going well.

At this point at least, Obama has retreated from his original position to keep that temporary tax reduction on incomes below $250,000 per year; instead offering to raise that floor to incomes of below $400,000. Meanwhile, Boehner has countered with raising that floor even further to up to incomes of $1 million. The Republican argument is that many of these incomes represent the earnings of small business owners; while the Obama administration is essentially countering that such incomes are, well, just those of rich people who would be protected by the party of wealth. Implicit in all this is that if no action is taken, the temporary tax reduction will expire and everybody will have his or her taxes bounce back up.

Parallel to this is a Republican effort to come up with a separate bill that would preclude some of the planned defence spending cuts so as not to undermine the national defence at a time of peril. Further back in line is the still-ongoing fight over whether the administration will propose a coordinated plan to guarantee the solvency of Social Security by exacting cuts in it and other entitlement spending. Oh, and before it gets left out, there will eventually be a need to pass a higher debt ceiling authorisation to allow the government to continue to sell bonds to finance the debt.

While there is lots of fire-breathing, smoke, noise and clamour right about now, and Boehner clearly has the hard road of dragging his hard-right wing to any agreement, the best guess is that at least some kind of temporising solution will be passed by the beginning of the year so that they can hold off the fiscal furies, at least until the new Congress gets down to business in 2013. Boehner has clearly seen the most recent polls that show a majority of Americans think the lion’s share of the crisis is firmly in the laps of the Republicans – and that will be a strong goad towards coming to the table and finding a way forward.

Meanwhile, the State Department issued its internal report examining the events in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, when four American diplomatic officers – including the US ambassador – were killed. A retired, very senior diplomat and an equally senior retired naval officer guided the panel’s deliberations and the drafting of the report.

Key elements of the report were that the relevant offices in the State Department such as Diplomatic Security and Near Eastern Affairs, failed in taking sufficient cognisance of and were not pro-active towards the deteriorating security circumstances in Libya and similar places. Moreover, the prevailing climate in the State Department was to husband security support funds, in addition to relying upon increasingly unreliable local Libyan guard forces to protect the Benghazi consulate. Now, to be sure, the protection of diplomatic establishments is universally the responsibility of the host government and US Marine detachments are not a guard force to hold off mobs, regardless of what one sees in popular action films. Finally, coordination with the US military was less than effective in protecting such vulnerable diplomatic posts and there simply were no military units available to assist within the time period when such action would have been effective.

Almost as soon as the report was issued, four senior officials were gone. Finished. Emptying their desks. While the content of the report and those personnel actions seem rather reasonable under the circumstances, Republican members of Congress are unlikely to be entirely satisfied with either the report or the bureaucratic responses.

Several top State officials were due to testify at a Senate hearing on Thursday, although not Secretary Hilary Clinton who is at home resting after a concussion suffered in a fall at home. However, the Republicans are likely to continue to insist Clinton must testify on the events and their aftermath and they are also likely to keep up the drumbeat to pin the responsibility on Barack Obama if they can.

They may feel emboldened in this after claiming Susan Rice’s metaphorical scalp – her presumed nomination to succeed Clinton has been killed, primarily because of her assertive performances on TV news talk shows in which she linked the Benghazi killings with a demonstration against that anti-Islam video, except for the fact that demonstration never happened. And now so has Rice’s promotion. While Republicans may continue to huff and puff over the State report, here again, at this point at least, public opinion polls seem to indicate the administration’s responses are about right in the opinion of a majority of the American population.

Potentially connected to Republican disgruntlement over Benghazi, the Obama administration will soon have to go forward with nominations for the top officials at State, Defense, the CIA and probably Treasury. With all this in mind, the Obama administration will be looking for appointees who know Congress and can gain their confirmations quickly without the process degenerating into a slanging match over Benghazi, thereby sapping the energies of the Obama forces.

Finally, there is the issue of gun control. When Obama first ran for office, he was visibly supportive of increased gun control measures such as the re-imposition of bans on assault weapons in private hands. During his first term, he mostly went very quiet on gun control, however. Now, of course, the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has brought the problem of guns used to carry out horrific massacres into being the number one story. Obama has now visibly pledged to do something on this – especially since he has had to console communities after several such events during his first term of office.

In the immediate aftermath of Newtown, many of the usual suspects opposing any form of gun control have gone very quiet, and it is just possible the Newtown tragedy has created an opening for new measures to control the sales of semi-automatic weapons and those extra-large ammunition clips so beloved of mass killers. At the same time, it is possible there may also be a new national conversation about the effects of ultra-violence in films, computer/video games and on TV, as well as the needs for treatment for those who are mentally unstable. For Obama, and Congress, the after-effects of Newtown may just possibly offer an opportunity, if in the process they don’t also rev up the gun collector community, hunters and those who remain convinced the whole thing is a plot to disarm citizens to face the power of an untrammelled government. 

In all four of these circumstances, there is opportunity – a chance for the grand bargain on the budget and the economy, an opportunity to figure out a new way to house and protect diplomatic missions in notably unstable environments, the appointment of a new and experienced national security team for the second Obama administration, and most unusually, a chance to come to grips with the tidal wave of guns that has washed across the country. 

The end of 2012 and the beginning of the New Year will be a very interesting time in American politics – coming immediately after Christmas dinners and New Year’s parties. DM

Photo: The U.S. Capitol Building stands in Washington December 17, 2012. The first real movement in the “fiscal cliff” talks began on Sunday, with Republican House Speaker John Boehner edging slightly closer to President Barack Obama’s key demands as they try to avert the steep tax hikes and spending cuts set to take effect unless Congress intervenes by December 31. REUTERS/Joshua Robert


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