In the 1990’s Bill Clinton was not looking good in his quest to be re-elected as president of the United States. His poll numbers were in the low 40’s in the Spring of 1995 and the Republicans were crowing about a generational takeover of the House and Senate after the bloodbath of 1994. However, within a year after two major staredowns with his nemesis Newt Gingrich Clinton had solidified himself as a leader heading into the 1996 presidential election. The nation respected him, he averted a slowdown of the red hot economy of the 1990’s and he steamrolled Bob Dole in 1996. After Obama’s last minute avoidance of a shutdown last weekend one has to wonder if really is as much a student of history as he claims.
For the last several weeks the press was full of stories about the impact of a potential government shutdown on the nation’s economy, Obama’s re-election chances and everything from the price of gas to the price of tea in China. The degree of coverage was actually quite shocking and in many ways distressing since there was little reporting on the actual cause of a shutdown as opposed to the politics behind why the stand-off was happening. CNN, MSNBC and Fox all had ticker lines across the bottom of the screen on Friday explaining exactly what government services might be shut off for days and what that impact might be. Colleagues and friends in Washington D.C. were all scurrying about on Friday trying to get work done since they didn’t know if they’d be back on Monday. Regular people like myself were just working like mad to finish my tax returns before the IRS wasn’t around to process the results. And then, the remarkable happened. Nothing. No shutdown. No big showdown. A mixture of fear, common sense and out and out cowardice averted something that would’ve been quite a disaster but wasn’t going to do the nation any good either.
Politically it was another in a long line of half stepping victories by Barack Obama. He has made a career of “winning” battles with Republicans that leave no one feeling particularly good about anything. He ends torture but he keeps wiretapping. He stops don’t ask don’t tell but won’t support gay marriage. He passes a healthcare bill but gives up on the public option. Now, he avoided a government shutdown but in the process gave the Republicans more than what they asked for. On Friday night’s episode of Real Times with Bill Maher the host described Obama as one of the worst negotiators in government history. That he was similar to a defense lawyer who’s first offer on your behalf was 40 years to life without parole. I can’t quite go that far, Obama did show some moxy last year when he got 20 billion out of BP from just one meeting, and he did stand firm for the military bases on Okinawa in 2009. However on domestic policy, and this budget battle is the perfect example, he just gives up too much all the time and for no good reason.
Friday night President Obama managed to accomplish three things simultaneously that I didn’t think were politically possible. Save his job, empower his enemies and sell out his own constituents at the same time. Obama’s re-election chances are totally dependent on the state of the economy, if unemployment is below 8.1 by next Summer he’s going to get re-elected. A government shutdown, even a short term one would stall the steady decline in unemployment that has been going on since last Christmas. At the same time he empowered the Tea Party right of the GOP by giving in to many of their demands knowing full well that battles over the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget are still looming. Lastly we all know where those cuts are coming from, not from the military, not from corporate subsidies and not from paybacks of massive bailout loans. No, those cuts that Obama accepted to cut a deal with Republicans will come out of the pockets of public school teachers, cops, EMT workers and regular people who make this country a remotely livable place.
Bill Clinton used his shutdown as a way to show power in the face of a hostile congress and comfort the American people that he would stand for them in the face of an over reaching right wing. Obama looked at a shutdown as yet another compromise to be had so that he could get re-elected next year. That may be effective but I don’t know if I’d call that leadership.
(Jason Johnson is a professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Northeast Ohio.)