"My goal was to get something done,” President Obama said at a Chicago fundraiser in May. Yet he’s pursuing a strategy that makes it nearly impossible to achieve that. He’s not acting in his own interest.
The president refuses to deal with Republicans in Congress. He claims they’re committed, above all else, to obstructing his entire agenda. So he’s boycotting them, except on rare occasions when he summons Democratic and Republican leaders together to the White House for a formal meeting. That hasn’t occurred since April 3.
But serious, individual overtures to key Republicans on big issues? Aides of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell can’t recall the last time he heard from Obama. It’s been “months at least,” an aide told me. The same is true for House speaker John Boehner.
This is a mistake for two reasons. The first is that modern presidents are expected to act, not wait for others to step forward. But Obama seems oblivious to the need for presidential leadership. The chief features of his presidency are passivity and hand-wringing, especially on domestic issues.
The second reason is that Obama is treating Republicans as aliens. He wants to lift his low poll ratings and enhance his legacy. But he can’t do that with executive orders alone. He needs Congress to pass legislation that he’s been active in putting together. For that, he needs Republicans, since they control the House.
In his Chicago speech—at his favorite venue, a fundraiser—the president lamented the lack of “bipartisan legislation to fix our immigration system.” He said Republicans have “refused to budge . . . despite the fact that every economist who’s looked at it says it’s going to improve our economy, cut our deficits, help spawn entrepreneurship, and alleviate great pain from millions of families all across the country.”
In truth, Republicans have budged. Several committees in the House have passed five separate bills to overhaul the immigration system. And one deals with allowing educated, skilled immigrants to stay in America after college or come in the first place. Yet Obama hasn’t spoken to Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte since last year.
The president insisted that congressional Democrats “have consistently been willing to compromise and reach out to the other side.” Sorry, but they haven’t. Democrats won’t give up their demand that immigration reform be “comprehensive”—that is, packed into a single bill.
Obama could change that, especially if he’s as keen on bringing “enormous talent” to this country as he says he is. He could, for example, support legislation to reform the current immigration system and put off the issue of illegal immigrants already here. Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida has proposed exactly this. But he hasn’t heard from the president since last year when he cosponsored the immigration reform measure that was approved in the Senate.
My point is that Obama would get credit for a less-than-comprehensive immigration bill. He would be seen, correctly, as responsible for taking a major step toward full reform. This would clearly be in his interest. But he hasn’t acted. He’s merely groused.
Then there’s tax reform. Were Obama to lead on this issue by promoting a bipartisan bill, he would benefit politically. This is what President Reagan did in his second term. He compromised with Democrats and got credit when tax reform was enacted. In the Senate, the vote was 97-3—in other words, really bipartisan.
An outcome even close to that seems out of reach for Obama, if only because he’s stuck to a tax reform concept that Republicans will never accept. Rather than eliminate loopholes, broaden the tax base, and lower the rates—in other words, traditional tax reform—Obama proposes to get rid of special tax breaks, and, rather than use the savings to reduce rates, he’d spend the money.
Indeed, he has plans for spending it. “Let’s just make sure that those of us who have been incredibly blessed by this country are giving back to kids so that they’re getting a good start in life, so that they get early childhood education, so that struggling middle-class families are able to finance their education.” And so on.
Republican Dave Camp of Michigan released a tax reform proposal last winter. It’s important because Camp is chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. He’s heard nothing from the White House for months.
Obama also wants more money for basic medical research. Bashing Republicans and refusing to negotiate with them won’t help. Seeking a compromise might. On energy, the president isn’t likely to get more money for solar and wind power unless he offers to open federal land to oil and gas exploration, which many Republicans support. Again, that would require coming to terms with Republicans.
Obama’s attitude is he’s right, Republicans are wrong, and that’s it. “We’re on the right side on every single issue and the majority of the American people agree with us on every single issue,” he said in Chicago. Is it possible he really believes this? I’m afraid so.
There’s also a crass political reason for Obama’s inflexibility. The main Democratic talking point in this year’s midterm elections is that Republicans are solely responsible for polarization and “dysfunction” in Washington. And in his Chicago talk, Obama hewed tightly to the party line, as he has in other speeches.
He does so at his own expense.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.