As fresh April rains, cherry blossoms and the Boston Marathon bombing converged into a frenetic Washington week, the White House attempted some legislative multi-tasking. President Barack Obama pushed an ambitious mix of gun control and immigration reform, and continued backroom negotiations over a fiscal year 2014 budget package. All this against the backdrop of soothing the mourning Boston victims, calming fears of a larger scale attack when ricin-laced letters were intercepted in Washington, and busily going about the business of meeting his earlier public promise to marathon bombing suspects that, “We will find you.”
What was not lost on observers was the ease with which the White House cemented a centrist approach. On every major legislative push, from gun control to immigration reform to wrangling over the details of next fiscal year’s budget, Obama is mapping out a middle road.
Charles S. Konigsberg, president of the Federal Budget Group, understands that approach. Konigsberg worked on both sides of the aisle in the Senate — as Republican counsel for the Senate Budget Committee and Democratic General Counsel for Senate Finance, as well as counsel in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. “Framing the ‘sensible center’ on difficult issues is the essence of effective leadership,” asserts Konigsberg. “The president is the only public official representing all Americans, and has a responsibility to forge a middle ground when the Congress is gridlocked over important issues like the budget, gun control and immigration.”
David Bositis disagrees. A senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Bositis can’t see this approach “going anywhere.”
“I think his political strategy is to set a stage where the GOP can be made to look ultra-right and intransigent in their politics,” argues Bositis.
Yet, making the GOP look “ultra-right” suggests the president is working in conjunction with hungry Democrats eager to either make gains or, at least, hold the electoral line in 2014. National Priorities Project Research Director Mattea Kramer seems on the fence with that notion when examining the president’s fiscal year 2014 budget, a massive late-dropping tome that’s been met with resentment from all sides. “He didn’t do his party any favors,” observes Kramer.
“It’s not all that clear that this centrist position will help him accomplish anything in terms of policy goals,” says Kramer, noting the president has more than likely “exposed himself to attack from both the left and right.”
“He very much alienated his left base, and Republicans are calling it an attack on seniors.”
Even with the president pressing a full scale lobbying assault for gun control, there was no indication he realistically envisioned an assault weapons ban — but, in the lauded compromise bill between Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), there was definitely hope of a bipartisan sweet spot on universal background checks. A recent Economist/YouGov poll showed 77 percent of Americans favoring extended background checks, including 68 percent of Republicans.
The White House is also hedging its bets for an eventual middle ground deal on immigration reform. While immigration advocates and business leaders alike expressed concerns over strict “trigger” measures and heavy bureaucracy on the path to citizenship, Senate negotiators were embracing the compromise elements of a bill that appeared to have a better chance of passage than gun control.
In each instance, the White House aims to give as much political wiggle room for weary Senate Democrats and Republicans heading into what will be a bombastic Congressional mid-term season next year. On gun control, an assault weapons ban would have been political suicide for any Republican voting for it, and even for many rural or red state Democrats supporting it. On immigration, Republicans need a bill with rigid citizenship and border security provisions to keep their angry conservative base under control; Democrats just need the cover to keep their Senate majority and possibly regain the House. On the budget, there are no winners, with both Democrats and Republicans miffed on everything from entitlement cuts to tax increases.
Ultimately, however, the White House is hoping no one is happy so all parties can walk away knowing their opponent only got as much as they did. “The essence of compromise on contentious issues requires that everyone put skin in the game,” adds Konigsberg.
Many observers, however, are still torn over whether or not compromise gives President Obama the kind of change-agent legacy he wants.
“His ongoing tendency to cede ground when it’s unnecessary is unfortunate from a political, policy and human impact perspective,” complains Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a social change strategy firm in Washington, D.C. “President Obama’s proposed cuts to Social Security, veterans benefits and other federally-issued benefit programs through the introduction of the ‘chained CPI’ represents a capitulation to big business interests, who for decades have been calling for cuts to these programs, or in the case of Social Security, for privatization.”
Rockeymoore believes that will be “politically toxic for Congressional Democrats” in 2014 given that the demographics most impacted by these changes typically vote Democrat. “[They] will be seeking to court seniors, veterans, and other voters who depend on these programs and will be hit hardest by these cuts.”
However, Scott Lilly, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former senior Congressional staffer, sees advantages in what he senses are the president’s use of “different strategies in different situations.”
“A president who is dealing with an intransigent Congress can gain advantage by making a reasonable or even generous offer knowing that it will not be accepted and in the end there will be no deal,” notes Lilly, who also served as Executive Director of the House Democratic Study Group. “He may not get the deal he wants but he will leave less doubt in the public’s mind as to who is being unreasonable.”
“On the other hand, making a reasonable offer at the outset of negotiations can seriously weaken the prospect that the agreement will reflect the president’s priorities.”