President Obama complained in a Saturday radio and Internet address that crucial issues are resolved in Washington only at the last possible moment. It was late December when he spoke, three days before the deadline on the fiscal cliff. A deal to avert automatic tax increases had yet to be reached.
“America wonders why it is in this town why you can’t get stuff done in an organized timetable,” he said. “Why everything has to always wait until the last minute. We’re now at the last minute. . . . Let’s not miss this deadline. That’s the bare minimum we should be able to get done.”
As usual, the president accepted no responsibility, much less blame, for the recurring phenomenon of brinkmanship. Two weeks earlier, he said Republicans were the impediment to reaching timely agreements because “it is very hard for them to say yes to me.”
True, it is difficult. But there’s a bigger problem. It’s not Obama’s inability to get along with Republicans. Nor is it the fact that he’s an exceptionally poor negotiator. The real problem is simply Obama’s refusal to compromise.
The president claims to be open to compromise. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not a coincidence that he hasn’t arranged a single bipartisan compromise with Republicans. Others in his orbit have—Vice President Biden twice, Senate majority leader Harry Reid once—but not Obama personally. He wrecks compromises. He doesn’t facilitate them.
In 2011, he came close to negotiating a $4 trillion “grand bargain” with House speaker John Boehner—before blowing it up. Boehner went out on a limb by agreeing to $800 billion in tax hikes, but Obama insisted on $400 billion more in taxes. That killed the compromise.
Following his reelection in November, the president appeared receptive to a compromise to avoid the fiscal cliff. But he suddenly increased his demands far beyond what Republicans could swallow. Thus, no compromise. Instead, a cliff deal was forced on Republicans, who feared being blamed for raising taxes. It was largely on Obama’s terms.
Why is Obama unable to compromise? I think there are both personal and political reasons. Far more than other politicians, Obama is convinced of the rightness of whatever he proposes. As best I can tell, this is not merely an excess of self-confidence. It’s a vanity, a conceit. On top of that, Obama regards practically everything Republicans want as ideologically toxic.
He was spoiled in his first two years as president. Democrats had overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate, so he got most of what he wanted—Obamacare, stimulus—without the need to compromise with Republicans for their votes.
When those majorities vanished in the GOP landslide in 2010, Obama was confronted with a Republican House and a barely Democratic Senate. He still hasn’t adjusted. And with reelection, he doesn’t think he has to. He believes it’s time for Republicans to knuckle under.
He talks about a “balanced” approach to taxes and spending. But the balance is heavily weighted in favor of tax increases, the bigger the better, and what often amount to phantom spending cuts. He’ll cut money for overseas wars that was never going to be spent in the first place.
Yet as the president told journalist Richard Wolffe, “You know, I actually believe my own bull—.” Indeed, he does, now more than ever.
The political rationale for spurning compromise comes from Obama’s attachment to his Democratic base—labor, liberals, feminists, environmentalists, minorities. He relied on them in his campaign for a second term and he’s loath to cross them now. And they’re dead set against any meaningful cuts in spending (except for defense).
To reach a compromise with the other party, “you can’t just sit back and hope that a bipartisan deal will fall in your lap,” says Keith Hennessey, an economic adviser to President George W. Bush. “You have to proactively challenge your own party to make it happen.” Obama is unwilling to do that.
In speeches and at press conferences, he pays lip service to tackling entitlements, but it’s always in the future. He’s endorsed a small reduction in Social Security’s annual cost-of-living increase, but backed away from actually offering it to get a bipartisan compromise. Why? His base opposes even this tiniest of concessions.
In the next three months, Obama faces three deadlines, or cliffs. Government borrowing will reach its limit—the so-called debt limit—in late February or early March. The $1.2 trillion sequester goes into effect on March 1. And the continuing resolution that keeps the government operating in lieu of a budget expires on March 27.
If the president wants to deal with these before the last minute, he’d better be prepared to compromise. Last week, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell urged him to “engage now or force a crisis later” on increasing the debt limit. To clear the way, McConnell said, what’s required is “a bipartisan spending-reduction solution.”
Spending cuts are precisely what Obama refuses to consider. He’s called for a “clean” bill to increase the debt limit, unlike 2011 when he was forced to compromise and accept spending cuts (negotiated by others). That was a painful episode for Obama. And he’s adamant about not compromising this year.
He’s no help on the sequester either. To replace its across-the-board cuts, half defense, half domestic, Obama wants to include tax increases. This is reminiscent of the spending cuts that passed muster with Biden last year, only to be brushed aside when Obama joined budget talks.
In all this, President Obama may be unaware that his allergy to compromise has a downside. It keeps him from acting in his own interest. For a freshly reelected president, he has a surprisingly low job approval rating. It hovers around 50 percent. But he has it within his power to improve his standing. Americans crave two things in Washington: bipartisanship and reduced spending. Deliver them and his approval rating will soar. All that’s required on his part is compromise.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.