Barack Obama's Christmas wish?
8:00 AM, Dec 24, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
Democratic Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama handed Republicans an early Christmas present this week, announcing on Tuesday he was switching parties and joining the GOP. And while President Obama's holiday wish list is still a state secret, hidden somewhere deep in the Oval Office, Mr. Parker's decision moves the Congress one step closer to granting the White House what might seem like a far fetched political gift for 2010: John Boehner as Speaker of the House.
That outcome could represent more than a piece of political coal for the president. Here's why. Mr. Obama's approval ratings have sunk during the past 12 months, plunging below 50% in a number of national polls. Many factors account for this decline, but three deserve close scrutiny. And electing a Republican majority in the House (which would elevate current GOP leader Boehner to Speaker) might actually help Mr. Obama's sinking political fate. Here's why.
First, the Democrats running Congress produce many of the president's problems. Speaker Pelosi and a host of liberal committee chairs regularly take White House ideas and move them dangerously out of the mainstream. These policies may sell in Hollywood, but not in the heartland. Cap and trade, health reform and economic stimulus legislation are just a few examples of legislative initiatives that lurched to the left due to tinkering by liberal lawmakers. Speaker Boehner would fix that problem.
One-party control of the executive and legislative branches of government creates even more problems for the White House. Polling consistently shows the public's preference for divided government. Voters like checks and balances. Speaker Boehner would grant that wish as well.
Obama's failure to produce a new bipartisan consensus is another variable driving down his numbers. As a presidential candidate he regularly promised a new era of hope defined by less polarization and bickering. In his victory speech on a chilly November night in Chicago the president-elect admonished Americans to "resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long." Reducing partisan polarization has been the area where the gap between the president's words and deeds is largest. Some might argue about reasons for his failure to achieve bipartisan aspirations. Yet whatever the cause, the president's performance when it comes to ending polarization is dismal.
Finally, a "Speaker Boehner" would help muzzle--or at least redirect--the snarling angry left. Right now many liberals just carp about the White House. Obama has not ended the war, produced a public option in health care or enacted cap and trade legislation. "He's failing," they say. A Republican Speaker provides the left with a new target. Instead of sniping at the White House, they could point their venom-soaked spears at Republicans controlling the House.
A former Clinton administration official told me the emergence of the Republican majority in Congress in 1994 helped reelect President Clinton in 1996. "In many ways it saved his presidency," he said. "We were forced to negotiate with the Republicans. We had no choice. That gave us an ability to push back on the most liberal elements of the Democratic caucus and say, 'We have to work with the other side if we want to get anything done.' While that wasn't easy, and it took some trial and error, it was in some ways also liberating."
A senior Republican from George W. Bush's White House made a similar argument: "Speaker Boehner, along with a 56-seat Democratic Senate would be a dream come true for the president in his last two years because Obama is in essence a politician and a dealmaker, not a policy guy with any conviction. Boehner and a Republican House will drive tough, but sensible, deals with the Senate," he argued. "And that is the prescription for an Obama re-elect."
Speaker Boehner might be a nightmare for Democrats in Congress, but he could be a dream come true for president Obama if the president wants to tackle tough problems facing the country, such as spending, taxes, deficits and even immigration.
The current health care debate should have taught the White House many lessons. But here is one of the biggest: taking on major policy reforms in a purely partisan fashion will drive your numbers down. Approaching the rest of his agenda in the same way is a recipe for political failure--it will completely bankrupt his remaining political capital.
The emergence of a "Speaker Boehner" would allow President Obama to share some of those political risks and regain his popularity. So Mr. President, there's still time. Ask Santa to grant you that odd political wish.