It’s way too early to put any money on the outcome of the next round of fiscal squabbles expected to break out on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks or to predict with any certainty who gained the most from the compromise that saved the nation from the indignity of a government shutdown.
But there seems little doubt that President Barack Obama helped himself politically, showing a facility for negotiation and compromise that he hadn’t in his first two years in office when both houses of Congress were in his hip pocket. The determination to ram through his health and economic stimulus packages cost him dearly at the polls last fall and, whatever one thinks, he is a quick learner.
At the same time, House Speaker John Boehner has emerged as a skilled manipulator of his own party’s fractious and determined elements, including the tea party activists who were forced to blink in the end. In only a few months, Boehner has proved to be a far more competent manager under difficult circumstances than his Democratic predecessor, Nancy Pelosi.
The year is young, however, and the demands for wholesale fiscal restraint have just begun, beginning with a 2012 budget and raising the debt limit. It remains to be seen how far those new Republicans elected on a pledge of government parsimony will go or whether the Democratic liberals — who believe Obama has betrayed them by giving too much — are willing to accept more. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada probably wishes he was shooting craps in Las Vegas. His odds of success might be greater.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has already laid down the gauntlet for the next battle with a revolutionary and controversial proposal for hacking really big bucks out of national spending beginning with the 2012 budget. This includes the hot topic of Medicare and Medicaid and how to stem their drain on government resources. In the past, most proposals for restoring some fiscal sanity to the growth of entitlement programs have been political poison, and there is no reason they won’t be now. Don’t expect any quick solutions here, or final adoption of many of Ryan’s recommendations.
The president, who has shown a great deal of stubbornness in the past, has recommended a 2012 budget that really doesn’t go very far toward meeting the demands of his critics. But he doesn’t seem all that wedded to it, and if the past few weeks are any indication he likes the idea of standing above the fray and helping to bring the two sides closer together. He sounds more like a convert to frugality praising the billions of cuts settled on rather than the profligate, willing to ram through expensive programs no matter what the cost.
Obama would deny this earlier view of him, of course, alleging that health care reform, for instance, actually would save money while at the same time choosing to ignore pretty solid evidence that the cost projections were skewed to make them politically palatable.
It is likely to be a long, hot summer punctuated with impassioned rhetoric, unreasonable demands and political confrontations, especially as the election season begins in earnest. We will see then whether his newfound management skills and willingness to compromise are for real. Both Obama and Boehner, who is in the presidential line of succession, have earned some new respect.
Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.