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A Perilous Deal for the President

Ear­lier this week, Pres­i­dent Obama signed a bill passed by Con­gress that would raise the debt ceiling and avoid default. The com­bative nego­ti­a­tions that pre­ceded the deal, how­ever, high­lighted the deep polit­ical divide in Wash­ington. We asked Robert Gilbert, the Edward W. Brooke Pro­fessor in Northeastern’s Depart­ment of Polit­ical Sci­ence, to examine the polit­ical cli­mate in light of this deal, and what it means for the 2012 elections.

What does this deal say about the current political climate in Washington?

It sheds con­sid­er­able light on the cur­rent polit­ical cli­mate. The Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans diverge sharply from each other; the Repub­lican Party has a dis­si­dent group within its ranks that is intran­si­gent and com­bative. Pol­i­tics is based on the art of com­pro­mise. The appear­ance of the Tea Party Move­ment three years ago rep­re­sents a major problem for both Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans because its adher­ents reject com­pro­mise and demand get­ting their way.

How did debt-ceiling negotiations reflect on the President? Did he come off looking weak for making compromises, or did he merely do what was necessary to avoid a default?

The Pres­i­dent looked strong in mid-​​July but then gen­er­ally weak­ened. The con­sensus view now is that the Repub­li­cans got much more of what they wanted than the Democ­rats did. This is reflected in the recent House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives vote where Repub­li­cans heavily sup­ported (174–66) the “com­pro­mise” plan while the Democ­rats were evenly divided (95–95). At present, the Democ­rats con­trol the exec­u­tive branch and one house (the Senate) of the leg­isla­tive branch. The Repub­li­cans con­trol one house (the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives) of the leg­isla­tive branch. How, then, did Repub­li­cans come away from the table rea­son­ably ener­gized while Democ­rats came away thor­oughly demoralized?

How will the debt ceiling deal — including the spending cuts — factor into the national political debate as the 2012 elections approach?

This episode might well factor into the national polit­ical debate next year in sev­eral ways. First, Pres­i­dent Obama has a dynamic speaking style, but he seems averse to con­fronta­tion. He is emerging as a sto­ical, rather than a trans­for­ma­tive, leader. The economy is still strug­gling and many people are hurting. A bad economy — par­tic­u­larly one with high unem­ploy­ment — is very dan­gerous to incum­bent pres­i­dents. Yet the sharp reduc­tions in gov­ern­ment spending out­lined by the “com­pro­mise” plan might well impede the eco­nomic recovery. In 2012, a key group may well be His­panic Amer­i­cans. Since 2005, the median wealth of this group declined by more than 60 per­cent. His­panics might not vote Repub­lican next year, but will they vote at all?

– by Greg St. Martin


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