When President Obama first won the White House in 2008, I was very worried that he had the potential to become a liberal version of Ronald Reagan. I thought he might have the oratory and interpersonal skills necessary to both cajole and pressure significant numbers of Republicans into putting a bipartisan seal of approval on a slew of liberal policies such as health care, global warming, immigration and entitlements.
Obama could have reshaped American society for decades to come.
Then the stimulus debate happened.
As recounted in Bob Woodward’s book “The Price of Politics,” just three days after he was inaugurated, Obama invited House Republicans to the White House to talk about how he could incorporate their ideas into the then-unwritten stimulus bill.
At the meeting, Minority Whip Eric Cantor distributed a five-point Republican stimulus plan that included tax cuts for the poorest Americans, tax cuts for small businesses, no taxes on unemployment benefits and a new homebuyer tax credit.
At the time, it was entirely possible that Obama could have taken some, or even one, of these ideas and included them in his almost $1 trillion stimulus plan. If he had, he surely would have gotten at least some Republican votes for his stimulus bill.
Instead, Obama told Cantor, “I can go it alone. … Look at the polls. The polls are pretty good for me right now. Elections have consequences. And Eric, I won.” Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was even more frank: “We have the votes. F–k ‘em.”
As a result, Obama’s final stimulus bill had zero Republican ideas in it. Not surprisingly, it also got zero Republican votes. The tone for Obama’s presidency had been set: all partisan scorched earth all the time. And it’s been that way ever since.
Liberals, including Obama, love to cite Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s, R-Ky., line that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” They claim it proves that Republicans were never willing to work with Obama from day one. But McConnell did not utter that line until October 2010, 22 months after Emanuel said, “F–k ‘em.” Republicans were willing to work with Obama. He just wouldn’t let them.
But Obama got a second chance. He won re-election. Republicans on Capitol Hill were again willing to work with him. House Republican leaders have told The Washington Examiner that Obama could be a credible partner for significant and meaningful entitlement and tax reform. One got the feeling that some House Republicans were eager to play Speaker Tip O’Neill to Obama’s Reagan.
Then Timothy Geithner and the fiscal cliff happened.
Obama’s secretary of the treasury was an odd choice for a negotiating point man to begin with. Boehner and other Republican leaders had previously called on Geithner to resign. His relationship with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., can best be described as confrontational. Geithner, and his perma-smirk, were not exactly signs that Obama was interested in a deal.
Sure enough, last Thursday the details of Geithner’s offer leaked. Not only did Geithner ask for $1.6 trillion in tax hikes (double what Obama campaigned on); not only did Geithner ask for new stimulus spending; not only did Geithner ask for an extension of “emergency” unemployment benefits; but he also asked for an infinite increase in the debt limit. That was the last real piece of leverage Republicans had.
The Geithner proposal completely killed any chance House Republican leaders had of convincing their members that Obama was an honest partner for anything — let alone major tax and entitlement reform.
Now we are either going to go over the fiscal cliff, or Republicans will act to preserve the Bush tax rates for the middle class while giving Obama his return to the Clinton tax rates for the highest income earners.
But that is all Obama will get. He’ll get no entitlement reform now. No individual or corporate tax reform either. The rest of the second-term Obama agenda is also DOA. It is going to be all partisan scorched earth all the time, again, for four more years.
Obama will have changed Washington. But for the worse.