If you follow national news, you know that we live in an era of hyper-partisanship. You know that President Barack Obama can’t corral his own party. You know that if he would just stand up to the Republicans, he would get things done. You know that he isn’t getting things done. You know that national politics is, for all intents and purposes, irretrievably broken. Depending on where you get your information, you know that our president is either a dangerous communist who exploits the Office of the President to force his radical agenda upon unsuspecting patriots, or a wimp with fewer “cojones” than his secretary of state. George W. Bush’s recent presidential memoir informs us that having “the cojones” to do tough things is a key test of one’s fitness for the presidency. By that slightly scatological standard, Obama has failed.
Here’s the thing: In the past month, the president sin cojones got a supposedly ineffective, hopelessly polarized and now lame-duck Congress that never does anything to do exactly what he wanted — just in time for Christmas.
What did Obama bring us in his holiday legislation blitz, you ask? Help for the beleaguered, in the form of extended unemployment benefits. Money in everyone’s wallet, thanks to tax cuts. Jobs, the result of reduced payroll and social security taxes. A safer world, thanks to a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. Well-deserved rest, in the form of health care compensation for 9/11 first responders. Freedom, in the repeal of that odious law, “don’t ask don’t tell.”
How did he do it? The old-fashioned way: through compromise. The arms reduction treaty passed 71-26. “Don’t ask don’t tell” was repealed by a vote of 65-31, including eight Republicans. The tax bill — which included those unemployment benefits — passed the House 277-148, with 112 of those “no” votes coming from Democrats. And the bill to help 9/11 responders? It passed the Senate unanimously after almost all senators reprimanded Republicans like Rep. Lamar Smith (R Texas), who called the plan an “$8.4 billion slush fund.”
Compromise, of course, means giving the other side some of the things it wants. Obama’s blitz was possible because it started with him swallowing a bitter pill. A few weeks ago, Senate Republicans signed a pledge saying they wouldn’t vote on anything until congress approved and the president signed a controversial tax-cut extension package for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. Numerous commentators suggested that the tax cuts would do more harm than good. Still, the Republicans got what they wanted in a sense. The tax cuts were extended — and continued to favor the wealthiest Americans — but the extension was for only two years. Democrats cried foul. Most of them voted against the bill and then raised a stink about the president giving in to Republicans even when his own party controlled both houses of Congress by a wide margin. In the wake of the tax cuts, the rhetoric of partisanship was as loud as it ever is these days, and some speculated that the president would soon face a revolt in his party — perhaps even a challenge in the 2012 primary elections. That now seems unlikely.
Getting everyone on board with these proposals took quite a bit of money. The tax cut and unemployment benefit package will cost $860 billion over two years — several hundred billion dollars were included simply to placate Republicans. In effect, the president bought the support of dozens of Republicans by agreeing to spend billions of dollars on tax cuts for the wealthy and for business. Hyper-partisanship, it seems, means little more than a higher price tag when it comes time to placate politicians with pork. With enough money at stake, even a do-nothing Congress can be persuaded to act.
Obama’s Christmas miracle is, in many ways, a miracle. But like most real miracles, it came at a high cost. Our president proved that he both has cojones and knows how to play politics. But we should be asking ourselves whether the compromise and results we expect of our government are worth the billions of dollars they seem to require.
Seth Soderborg is an LSA junior.