President Obama’s approach to Republicans has been straightforward — exclude them from the policy formulation process and then attack them as the party of “no” when they oppose the policies formulated without any Republican input. The strategy simultaneously marginalizes Republicans and presents the prospect of further marginalization if the policies they oppose prove to be popular in their own right or become associated in the public’s mind with administration successes.
But so far, being the party of “no” has hardly constituted a liability because the policies Republicans oppose are not popular in their own right and the administration is not perceived as having had any meaningful successes. There has been no price to be paid for opposing a stimulus package that is not viewed as having done much to improve the employment picture. And because Republicans won the debate on health care reform, it is the Democrats who are paying a price on this issue.
Will Obama now change course? If we apply the construct I have set forth above, I think the answer is “yes and no.” I do not expect his approach to Republicans to change, but I believe he will devise a new set of programs and policies to which we will be invited to say “no.”
One of them will consist of measures directed at “Big Banking.” The Democrats’ last-minute pitch in Massachusetts and Obama’s utterances following the election there plainly signal that, insurance companies having fallen short as the designated bogeyman, banks are next.
Obama also appears likely to create a commision to come up with ways to reduce the budget deficit. This concept had some bipartisan appeal. In fact, Senators Conrad and Gregg have proposed such a commission. But Obama rejected their concept in favor of his own. Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard explains the differences between the two approaches:
The president’s plan would seek only to reduce the deficit by 2015, whereas the Conrad-Gregg commission would look at long-term fiscal imbalances; there would be twice as many Democrats as Republicans on the Obama commission, whereas there would be only two more Democrats than Republicans on Conrad-Gregg; the Obama commission has no fast-track authority to force an up-or-down vote, whereas Conrad-Gregg does.
So let’s assume that the White House will change course by shifting the focus to banking reform, an essentially bogus approach to dealing with the deficit, and a policy or two to be named later, The questions become: (a) is this strategy likely to help the administration and (b) how should Republicans respond?
Banking reform and the illusion of debt reduction are certainly better issues for the Democrats than health care reform, which was never even a high priority issue for most Americans. Neither issue is likely affirmatively to hurt the president, as the health care reform initiative seems to have done.
On the other hand, Obama cannot reasonably expect that these issues will drive up his popularity. Only a strong economic recovery is likely to accomplish this.
As for the Republican response, it should depend on the merits. The debt reduction commission looks like a sham. If it is, Republicans should say so. Those who support the concept should then explain why a genuinely bipartisan commission with teeth was the way the adminsitration should have gone.
With respect to banking reform, it is particularly important for Republicans to pay close attention to the merits. There is residual (and justified) anger against banks. Republicans shouldn’t let such anger result in a bad policy, but neither should they reject reform out-of-hand. Rather, as Irwin Stelzer says, “Republicans had better get their intellectual case in order” on this issue.