Four years ago, President Obama entered office vowing to ease divisions, a plea for unity that went unanswered. By asking for help from Republicans, Obama may have made them less likely to give it: Obama placed the burden of compromise on his own shoulders, and Republicans found it only too easy to declare his overtures to be insufficient.
Last night, journeying to the Capitol for his first address to Congress since his reelection last November, Obama’s second-term strategy seemed clear, and very different. There was a brief reminder that the American people “expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can,” but that was just a precursor to a long, forceful argument for taking a “balanced approach” to resolving the nation’s fiscal problems, through changes in Medicare and the tax code that serve to reduce costs and raise revenue.
It was Obama’s best shot to pressure the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to avoid the automatic trillion-dollar budget cuts known as the “sequester” that will take effect March 1. That combination of cuts in defense and social programs delivers too much medicine too soon: The economy would likely plunge back into recession, based on the federal cutbacks alone.
In language that was as blunt and prosaic as his inaugural address was lofty and poetic, Obama delivered a clear message that if the sequester were to take effect, Republicans would be responsible. “The greatest nation on earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next,” he declared, in a tone of disgust that may have registered louder than his words.
Obama’s frustration is justified. His approach to deficit reduction is far more economically sound than allowing the sequester to take effect, and his argument has already prevailed at the ballot box. But it hasn’t moved the most stalwart conservatives in the House, who retain the ability to obstruct the president’s agenda. Obama’s goal wasn’t to persuade them, but rather enough of their constituents — and enough GOP leaders who fear electoral defeat in 2014 — to force a compromise.
If that sounded like political hardball, it was. But buried within the speech were many of the compromises that conservatives would seek, starting with Obama’s willingness to adjust Medicare benefits, the longtime sacred cow of the Democratic Party. Republicans should absorb both messages: If they sit back and allow the sequester to take hold, as some conservatives have called for, the people won’t blame both sides — they’ll blame the GOP. But if Republicans come to the table, they’d gain long-sought reductions in federal spending.
The rest of Obama’s speech followed in a similar vein. On gun control, he played up bipartisan sentiment for better background checks for gun buyers, but also made it clear he’d bring public anger to bear against Republicans if they prevent a vote on such modest measures. After a call for bipartisan action on climate change, he vowed that if a deal proved elusive, his administration would take action anyway. That sounded like a threat of new restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions from the Environmental Protection Agency — a blunt instrument that might prod Congress to do what it should have done four years ago: Adopt a cap-and-trade program that requires the dirtiest plants to pay the cleanest ones for the right to pollute.
The rest of Obama’s domestic agenda was more familiar: a call for more investments in clean energy, job training, early childhood education, and — significantly — medical research. Obama wisely cast these programs as ways to promote economic growth and help private industry. Indeed, more government-funded research and a firmer economic safety net would strip costs from American businesses, letting them compete more effectively around the world.
Such programs would be the reward for a bipartisan agreement on deficit reduction, which would free up money for other priorities. Obama sketched out the stakes in very direct terms. Unlike four years ago, he spoke as if he knew just what he wanted — and that the majority of the people were with him. That may or may not be enough to dislodge the obstructionists in the House, but it should be.