WASHINGTON, D.C., November 30, 2012 — President Obama should take some time off to see the movie “Lincoln.”
Abraham Lincoln understood the art of legislating. He knew how to deal, how to cajole, how to play his hand and not overreach, and how to do it in a way that would enable some of his political opponents to save face. He understood that he sometimes needed to get the hard liners in his own party – like Thaddeus Stevens – to tone down their rhetoric so as not to offend the swing voters in the Democratic Party that were needed to pass the 13th amendment.
President Obama can learn from that approach.
The president’s plan to avert the “fiscal cliff” calls for $1.6 trillion in tax increases, $50 billion in stimulus spending, and $400 billion in Medicare savings. The New York Times deemed the plan “loaded with Democratic priorities and short on detailed spending cuts.”
It was immediately rejected by Republicans. “I’m disappointed in where we are, and disappointed in what’s happened over the last couple weeks. Going over the fiscal cliff is serious business. And I’m here seriously trying to resolve it. And I would hope the White House would get serious as well,” House Speaker John Boehner said.
The plan was a nonstarter for Republicans, and The White House probably knew it. So why do it? He did to prove a point. He did it to score points with Democrats, and show Republicans that he has the leverage to get whatever he wants. After all, he won re-election convincingly, and campaigned on raising taxes on high-income earners.
But Obama was not the only person who won re-election on Nov. 6. Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and many other House Republicans also won re-election on a promise not to raise taxes.
With that said, many of those Republicans have been acting in good faith, and shown a willingness to accept new revenues as long as there is entitlement reform and significant spending cuts.
Boehner and Cantor have agreed to put revenue on the table. Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) broke Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge. “I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge,” he said.
Rep. Peter King also agrees that the pledge may be irrelevant in this economy. “I agree entirely with Saxby Chambliss. A pledge you signed 20 years ago, 18 years ago, is for that Congress … the world has changed, and the economic situation is different,” King said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also broke the Norquist pledge. “When you’re $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece. Republicans should put revenue on the table …” Graham said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
So there has been movement on the Republican side for more revenue. Yet the president offers them a plan that is clearly intended to score points.
President Obama is over-playing his hand. His lack of specificity on spending cuts and entitlement reform will make Republicans run the other way. His combative approach makes deal-making more difficult.
Tone matters. Treating your political opponents in a mature fashion matters. Magnanimity, even in victory, matters.
If he really wants to reach a compromise with Republicans, Obama is going about it the wrong way.
Ayobami is graduate student in George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
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