The 112th Congress, which takes over from its predecessor 111th in two days, inherits the most miserable approval ratings ever “enjoyed” by any Congress – being viewed favorably by a paltry 13% of the American people. Things are so bad that many observers already are asking whether the House — under GOP control for the first time in four years — will end 2011with an even lower approval rating.
While few, if any Republican political leaders publicly would admit it, it is perhaps two Democrats who may offer the best chance for the Republicans to avoid ending their first year worse off than they began. The names of those two men who just might provide a lifeline for the GOP? Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Notwithstanding the serious problems I and many other conservatives and libertarians have with the massive spending measures appended to the Bush tax-cut extension President Barack Obama recently signed, the fact that Obama signed the measure reflects a recognition by him that he needed to exhibit a great deal more flexibility in the second half of his first term than he showed in the first two years. I suspect Obama’s recent meeting with Bill Clinton, a master politician possessed of an uncanny ability to bob-and-weave when necessary to score a touchdown, may have been a major catalyst in Obama’s changed modus operandi.
Whether the president’s newly-exhibited moderation will last into the new Congress, and whether incoming-Speaker John Boehner and his fellow Republicans will exhibit a similar pragmatic streak, is not yet clear. The answer, however, will likely manifest itself early in the new session of the Congress, as the House moves to consider a permanent 2012 budget to replace the stopgap one signed by Obama just before Christmas. Both sides, however, face significant roadblocks from within their own ranks to any overt compromises.
Obama faces serious dissatisfaction from his liberal base for having compromised with the GOP in order to pass the recent tax bill, notwithstanding his victory in killing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military. Still, a serious primary challenge to his seeking reelection is highly unlikely. The scenario for the GOP is significantly tougher. Already, the incoming speaker is facing pressure from the bevy of 2012 presidential primary hopefuls to avoid even the appearance of compromise with the President.
The large, middle ground of American politics may be somewhere else altogether.
Now that last fall’s white-hot campaign rhetoric has cooled to a bright orange, many Americans are reflecting on the fact that Congress was able to get more done in December than in the previous 11 months combined, during which time not a single spending bill was passed.
The current scenario also conjures memories of 1997, when a rejuvenated Bill Clinton, coming off a relatively easy reelection victory and not yet wounded by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, realized that plowing common ground with the Newt Gingrich-led House of Representatives could benefit both he and the GOP. That recognition and the hard work of these two leaders (who were more alike than either would admit publicly) led to the decade’s most important piece of legislation – the Balanced Budget and Welfare Reform Act of 1997. This watershed Act led directly to the country’s first balanced federal budget in decades, and dramatically and positively reformed welfare in ways still benefitting the states more than a dozen years later.
If Boehner and Obama are able to fashion a similar working relationship, in which both sides score their political points but at the end of the day agree on legislation that offers each side some of what it wants and needs, the groundwork could be laid for not only a productive 112th Congress, but a national campaign in which both major parties actually have something of substance on which to run in 2012. Wouldn’t that be something?
-by Bob Barr, The Barr Code