A daylong conference at Northeastern University on Thursday will explore the fascinating subplots of the political landscape now that the 2012 elections are less than a year away. The event was organized by Northeastern University political science professor William Crotty, the Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Public Life. To preview the conference, we asked Crotty to examine how President Barack Obama has fared in his first term in dealing with resistance from the Republican Party.
How does the political dynamic play out with the president in one political party and the opposing party with strong control of at least one legislative chamber?
In this scenario, the prospects for conflict and potential stalemate are great. It takes a willingness to recognize a national need, a moderation in approach and a tolerance for an opponent’s concerns to enact meaningful policy initiatives. This may be virtually impossible to achieve, given the contemporary political climate of extreme party polarization and the nation’s economic woes. This type of deadlock has occurred in the past. It is rooted in the electoral-group base of the parties and the legislative districting that establishes one-party outcomes in so many House districts. It will take more than exhortations to restructure the shape of the political world.
How have congressional Republicans specifically engaged Obama in his first term?
The Republican Party in the Congress appeared to sense Obama’s vulnerability in the face of a united, intransigent opposition early on in his presidency. He appeared to accommodate rather quickly to their views in an effort to achieve a more civil, and — in his view — productive presidency. It did not work. Such an effort would require a president who could demonstrate his leadership skills and his ability to, in this case, turn a dominant electoral victory into a signature legislative program. President Obama was not able to achieve this. Early on, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Republican Party would do all in its power to ensure that this presidency would fail. I cannot recall another public statement like this by a party leader in any presidency. They have been true to their word.
How has congressional resistance played out historically?
There are many examples of intense congressional resistance to a president’s agenda. This is not new. What is new is the tone of the exchanges and the willingness to repeatedly hold the governing system hostage to get their ends. This strategy has enjoyed success. The president has chosen to give in repeatedly. He has relied on advisors and policies carried over from the Bush administration, and he has chosen to follow economic policies that brought on the Great Recession. It is a challenge to identify his core values and what exactly he stands for with conviction. Among other things, the president has proven himself to be a poor communicator and a political leader without emotion. He is detached — he lacked a specific policy program upon entering the presidency and therefore leaves it to the Congress to work out the essence of policies. Rather, he comes in at the end to move the combatants the final few yards to a resolution — all of this in a time of fundamental party division. It is an approach unlike any previous president I know of. In my opinion, the Republicans in the Congress have been irresponsible, but you cannot lay all of the blame on them.