Is the change we need bipartisanship?


With the passage of his first major piece of legislation, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Barack Obama ’91 has already embarked on a bold domestic policy aimed at rejuvenating a struggling economy and retooling the nation for the century ahead. Although the President was able to successfully fulfill his promise to pass a stimulus package within his first weeks in office, in doing so he failed dismally with respect to his promise of bipartisan action in Washington. While the President appeared to be apologetic in his explanation of why a bipartisan compromise was not possible with the stimulus bill, the 2010 budget released last week by the Obama Administration, entitled “A New Era of Responsibility,” is a clear signal that the President has no intention to compromise with Republicans. Rather, he intends to redefine the political center and force the Republicans to follow.

The first section of the budget, “Inheriting a Legacy of Misplaced Priorities” is a denunciation of Bush Era Regan-inspired policies, which are said to have created a widening wealth and income gap, a failing education system, a bloated health care sector, and a government which is opaque and reckless. To a Republican, these are likely to be seen as fighting words, and the proposed remedy, a more progressive tax system and federal intervention to reshape the health, education, and energy sectors, is sure to draw the ire of right-wing opposition. Fiscal conservatives have already begun to bemoan the largest deficit ever as a sign of unsound national policy. But in the wake of the Bush Era and with no apparent leadership in the party, it is unclear how Republicans can articulate a clear alternative to the Obama Administration’s policy initiatives.

The President’s domestic agenda is undeniably bold, and his choices of clean energy, education, healthcare, and responsible government as core policy goals are supported by empirical arguments and ubiquitous public demand. If the President pursues his agenda with impunity under the protection of a Democratic Congress, Republicans will gain the advantage of being able to demonize his budget as bloated and wasteful and bide their time until they can unite behind new leadership. At the same time, the President will be forced to use all the political capital available to him to maintain Democratic unity. Thus, when the midterm elections arrive in two years, a population battered by an economic depression will face a choice between a rejuvenated Republican opposition party and Democrats who have been forced into the mold of “tax and spend” and “Washington Politics.”

Although President Obama runs the risk alienating the Right and losing any opportunity for bipartisanship, the depth and severity of the economic crisis to come demand a bold push for reconfiguring our national priorities. It is only in a time of great turmoil that the people are ready for dramatic change, and the directives outlined in the Administration’s budget are both pragmatic and visionary. Indeed, while consumer confidence remains low and unemployment is skyrocketing, Americans are looking to the national government to inspire them where the private sector has failed to provide opportunities. As credit markets thaw and stimulus money begins putting people to work repairing the foundation of the economy, entrepreneurs and business leaders will look to the vision of domestic policy outlined in this budget as a roadmap for the nation’s future. The President has certainly delivered on his promise to change Washington, but in order to do so he will have to press forward in the face of a hostile opposition.

Nonetheless, if the President wants to inaugurate a new era in long-term planning and fiscal discipline, it will require a careful balancing of the priorities he has outlined for the nation and the incorporation of many of his critics demands. Republicans who want to be involved in the effort to rebuild our economy and restructure government must given an opportunity to define themselves as the party that puts responsibility into Obama’s bold new era. If some sort of pragmatic collaboration cannot be negotiated, the current administration’s long-term objectives will risk being swept away with shifting political tides over the coming decade. But if Republicans can take credit for the rapid restoration of fiscal discipline, they may be able to accept a political center that has been realigned somewhat toward the left.

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