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Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner

Posted: December 14, 2008 09:01 PM

The Post, Post-Partisan President


Barack Obama has made it very clear that he intends to govern as a bridge-builder. Ideology is a bad word in Obamaland. He will lead as a pragmatist, and also reach across the aisle to Republicans.

This stance has stimulated a passionate debate among progressives, on HuffingtonPost and elsewhere. For some, this is just the latest disappointing case of a candidate arousing the hopes of the center-left but governing from the center-right (viz. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhardt Schroeder). Hey, it's capitalism, what did you expect?

For others, this is neither politics as usual nor capitalism as usual, Nor is Obama the president as usual. And so it will not be opportunistic pragmatism as usual.

In the new normal, what is pragmatic is actually fairly left wing. If massive public spending, and re-regulation of Wall Street, and green energy, and universal health coverage can be characterized as mere pragmatism, bring it on. We can acknowledge later that we have moved the center to the left and shifted the prevailing ideology. Clever guy, this Obama.

But what about the post-partisan part? Here again, it may just be shrewd positioning. But if President-elect Obama actually believes that this is a bipartisan moment, he is in for a rude awakening.

The lame-duck Senate Republicans have just blocked the bill to provide temporary financing for the auto industry needed to give the new administration and Congress time to work with the automakers on a restructuring plan. Not much bipartisanship there. Indeed, it was George W. Bush, the least bipartisan president in decades, who came to the rescue of the industry and the Democrats by relying on emergency use of the bank bailout funds. Just imagine what Republicans will do in the next Congress.

If you have been watching or reading Republican pronouncements lately, just about nothing in the Obama program is likely to get the support of the Republican leadership. Bank re-regulation? The Employee Free Choice Act? Hundreds of billions for green energy? Universal health insurance? A trillion dollars of stimulus as the downpayment on a permanent increase in public investment?

The Republican story is that the best stimulus is more tax cuts, and that the money should be found by reducing the deficit. That leaves no room for more public spending, only for more spending-cuts. And despite the fact that deregulation caused the financial collapse, Republicans still insist that regulation did it--the evil Community Reinvestment Act (which in fact explicitly required that sound lending standards were not to be waived. Most subprime lenders were not even covered by CRA.)

Here is an easy prediction: When President Obama reaches that hand of bipartisanship across the aisle, he will find that the Republicans bite it.

Of course, it is smart politics to pick off Republicans for a progressive agenda wherever possible. Splitting the Republicans is much better than splitting the difference. By January, when Congress takes up the emergency stimulus bill, unemployment will be heading toward double digits, and state and local governments will be slashing public services. In that emergency climate, Obama may well get some Republicans to cross over and vote for a Democratic plan.

But that strategy is not being bipartisan. It is being an astute partisan. And there will be many other times when Obama will need to rally all of his Democrats to enact progressive legislation over the strenuous objection of most Republicans. This economic emergency and its political opportunity is no time to compromise for the sake of hollow unity. If Obama can win over a few Republicans for a progressive program, great. If he put can Republicans in the position of haplessly opposing popular and urgently needed legislation, so much the better.

By the end of his first year, either Obama will have put the economy on the path to recovery based on a progressive program that represents a radical ideological shift; if he achieves that, he will have done it with precious little Republican support. Alternatively, much of his program will have been blocked by Republican filibusters enabled by a few conservative Democratic allies.

Let's hope it's the former. And let's hope he has the audacity to call progressivism by its name. Either way, one thing Obama will not be is post-partisan.

Robert Kuttner's best selling book is "Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency."