While I expected the lame duck session of Congress to be more productive than it has been, others thought little would be accomplished. As the session comes to an end, Obama and his team have managed to shepherd a number of key policies through the Congressional House of Horrors. The long overdue repeal of the military's always unethical "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy and the tax cut law have already been enacted during the lame duck, and the START arms control treaty may well be ratified in the next several days. At session's close, there is a growing sense that we might be headed toward two years of absolute legislative gridlock, although I believe that the opposite is probably true. Political predictions are a dangerous business, so let me hedge what follows with a blanket probability statement: this is my best guess of what I think we will see in the run up to 2012.
Presidential politics is always about redefining the political center. Ronald Reagan did that in 1980 as did Bill Clinton in 1995. While Presidents influence the definition of the center, they must be careful to occupy it once it is defined. Due to the role of the Electoral College in electing presidents and single member district-based elections for the House of Representatives, political power in America is never achieved through ideological distinctiveness and purity. Our political structure pushes politics toward the center. If an American Tea Party or Green Party got 20% of the votes in each of 300 Congressional districts, in all likelihood, they wouldn't send anyone to Congress. In many parliamentary systems that number of votes would produce a large number of deputies for their national legislature. Power in America requires compromise and the search for common ground. Supermajorities of the type that President Obama enjoyed during part of his first term are unusual -- further reinforcing the need to bargain to achieve policy goals.
The tax bill allowed President Obama to give up something to get something, tax cuts for the very wealthy in exchange for the extension of unemployment insurance and economic stimulus spending. Obama knows that his reelection requires economic revival. The original stimulus, the pump priming actions of the Federal Reserve, and now the tax cut are all designed to jump start the economy. The often forgotten fact is that the Great Recession did not become the Great Depression 2.0. This is evidence that these policies have worked. However, Obama's re-election requires more than the absence of economic disaster -- he needs economic growth.
The 2012 election campaign is well underway and continues to build momentum. The Republican Party rode its policy of obstruction and negativity to take control of the House of Representatives. This disciplined and intense opposition to all things Obama carried them this far, but unfortunately for the Republicans, it will carry them no further. Republicans can no longer act as if they have no political power. They have veto power in the Senate and control of the House. President Obama will need to move all of his legislative goals to the political center. The tax bill is an example of a centrist policy. It is a large stimulus bill that boosts the economy with tax cuts and hopefully private spending rather than direct government spending. In 2011 and 2012 we will see more of the same type of centrist policymaking.
It is easy to understand why President Obama needs centrist policy achievements, but why should the Republicans play ball with the President and enhance his chances for re-election? Because they have no choice. Newt Gingrich and his pals learned the danger of allowing gridlock to close the government. That means that Congressional bargaining power with the President is limited. They can't just say no, they must act. They must allow the government to function or they will be blamed for its failure. Clinton used that playbook to perfection in the mid 1990's, and Obama and his folks are preparing the 21st century version.
The political dynamic in Congress forces Obama to the political right and allows him to occupy a political center that is more in tune with the electorate we saw in November 2010. This is probably good news for Obama. A sitting President cannot run as an insurgent outsider as then Senator Obama did in 2008. President Obama faces 2012 bearing the responsibilities of a commander-in-chief and with the power and pageantry of the White House at his command. He also will enter the election season with a myriad of accomplishments: a revived economy, a less belligerent foreign policy, a revived energy and environmental policy, re-regulation of the finance industry, and of course, national health care
In all likelihood the Democrats will not mount a serious primary challenge to the President. The Republicans, on the other hand, will have a Tea Party-inspired free-for-all. The President may end up looking like the only gown-up in the crowd, and may very well win back many independents by default. His biggest problem will be convincing his base to get excited about him again and turn out to vote. If the Republicans nominate an anti-choice, anti-government, right wing ideologue, his base may come out to vote due to fear of the alternative. While I consider the above the most likely short-term political scenario, lots of unforeseen events can change the equation. Terror, war, scandal and simple human error can undo these predictions, and only a pundit, fool or a professor tries to predict the future. Since I may be all three, let's all bookmark this page and check back in November 2012 and see if I was moderately right -- I mean correct.