30 September 2011
Obama assumed office determined to usher in an era of civility and bipartisan cooperation in Washington. He accomplished neither. House Speaker John Boehner, who once signaled that he welcomed a working relationship with the president, quickly became captive of the Tea Party, a small, energized group that pushed Republican leaders to the right of Democratic and Republican voters.
When the President and Boehner were close to reaching a major budget compromise earlier this year, the Republican House leader walked out of the talks. When Obama attempted to reach him by telephone, Boehner twice refused to take his calls. And when President Obama requested to speak to a joint session of Congress on his new job proposals, Boehner broke precedence and rejected the request because it conflicted with one of 20 scheduled Republican presidential debates.
At every turn, Republicans worked to block Obama’s initiatives, even if that meant opposing some programs they had previously supported. Meanwhile, many of the president’s defenders were boxed into a corner.
One of them, Al Sharpton, claimed that Obama was executing the political equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope, languishing on the ropes until his opponents tire themselves out before scoring an eventual victory. But Barack Obama is not Muhammad Ali. John Boehner is no George Foreman. And instead of the “Rumble in the Jungle,” this was the Rumble in D.C., where the stakes are much higher.
For the first time, President Obama proved that he can trade punches with Boehner.
Obama set up Boehner in his jobs address to Congress on Sept. 8. He said, “…There’s a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that’s on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America.” Senate Minority Leader Mitchell McConnell is a Kentucky Republican and Boehner is from Ohio.
In his speech on Sept. 19, President Obama went for the knockout blow.
“Speaker of the House John Boehner gave a speech about the economy,” Obama said. “And to his credit, he made the point that we can’t afford the kind of politics that says it’s ‘my way or the highway.’ I was encouraged by that. Here’s the problem: In that same speech, he also came out against any plan to cut the deficit that includes any additional revenues whatsoever. He said – I’m quoting him – there is ‘only one option.’ And that option and only option relies entirely on cuts… So the Speaker says we can’t have it ‘my way or the highway,’ and then basically says, my way – or the highway. That’s not smart. It’s not right.”
Obama smartly reached out to his base, contrasting his approach to that offered by GOP leaders.
“Now, we’re already hearing the usual defenders of these kind of loopholes saying this is just ‘class warfare.’ I reject the idea that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or a teacher is class warfare. I think it’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “I believe the American middle class, who’ve been pressured relentlessly for decades believe it’s time that they were fought for as hard as the lobbyists and some lawmakers have fought to protect special treatment for billionaires and big corporations.”
Most politicians give a nod to middle-class workers, usually with an eye on the next election. Obama is no exception. But in his Rose Garden speech Monday, the president mentioned the “poor” four times. That’s significant, considering 46.2 million people are now living below the official poverty line, the highest rate in the 52 years the Census Bureau has been collecting such data.
A segment of Obama’s political base was deeply disappointed over his decision to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw a plan to cut smog levels. He reached out to his disappointed base in his speech to Congress.
“But what we can’t do – what I will not do – is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades,” he stated. “I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety. I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards. America should be in a race to the top. And I believe we can win that race.”
In reaching out to Republicans, Obama had hoped to win over important independent voters. But his standing in the polls declined with that bloc as well. Like all voters, independents look to leaders who will fight for their programs.
In his Rose Garden speech, Obama adopted a stronger posture than he had assumed in the past.
He said, “I will not support – I will not support – any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans. And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share. We are not going to have a one-sided deal that hurts the folks who are most vulnerable.”
Now President Obama is sounding more and more like candidate Barack Obama. That’s how he got his groove back.
George E. Curry, keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. •
his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.