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The Presidential Election of 2012, Part 1: The Benefits of Divided Government

By Oliver DeMille

The Big Three

Americans feel deeply and strongly about three things right now. All three have support on the right, the center and the left.

These may well dominate the news and politics until the election of 2012, just as stimulus, health care and the midterm election overshadowed the discussions of 2009-2010.

Moreover, all three are long-term issues and unlikely to be solved any time soon. The American discussion for the next two years will probably center on:

  1. Jobs
  2. China
  3. Healthcare

This reality holds an inherent disadvantage for Democrats:

  1. Americans overwhelmingly discount government jobs and see private-sector jobs as the only real solution.
  2. Democratic presidents are seen as soft on foreign aggressors.
  3. It was an entirely Democratic vote which passed health care. Republican gains in the 2010 election were mostly votes against Democrats and not votes for the Republican agenda. The one exception is the idea of repealing the health care law.

If Republicans can combine these three points into one coherent message, their stock will rise. If they can position the health care law as the great enemy of both jobs and America’s ability to compete with China, they will most likely gain momentum toward the 2012 election.

This likely will not be a hard sell since much of the underlying concern about China is that it is becoming a world leader in innovation.

Arguably, the foundation of leadership and power is innovation; and the rise of Chinese entrepreneurialism is the greatest world challenge to America (except for Washington D.C.’s anti-small business regulations). Deep down many Americans are feeling the anxiety of this shift.

Mainstream Americans want to feel good again; they want to feel like we’re on a course to achieve a meaningful end. Having an enemy like health care to unite them, with the promise of increasing both jobs and our competitive advantage over China by dismantling the new health care law, will appeal to many.

Only a few on the left still experience the health care afterglow, so there is little staunch support for it even in the liberal base. Beyond that, the majority of Americans in the election of 2008 were optimists, but now the majority feels pessimistic. In times of malaise like this, one-term presidents are the norm (e.g. Ford, Carter, Bush I).

The New Blame Game

Americans put the blame for their feelings of worry over jobs and China squarely on the White House: both Bush and Obama. In the case of health care, however, only President Obama is to blame.

Phrases like “Obamacare” and “Obamanomics” are now household additions to the language. And these are patently not positive or even neutral terms.

A common and even pervasive narrative now is that the United States is seeing its status decline and may lose its leadership role in the world because of the way Obamanomics and especially Obamacare made us unable to compete with China.

“Obama fiddled while America’s jobs burned,” is more and more becoming the accepted view in middle America. President Obama calling himself “America’s first Pacific president” actually reinforces this concern; it feels to many that he is following China’s leadership instead of vice versa.

Many Americans—conservative, moderate, and liberal—simply cannot fathom how the White House put so much emphasis on health care, Cap and Trade and increased government spending while seeming to ignore the issue of jobs.

No matter how the administration tries to argue that it cared about jobs all along, the American people just don’t see it that way. Even the stimulus is seen now more as a clever use of the recession to expand government spending than a sincere effort to combat unemployment.

A Tale of Two Stories

All the incentive now is for President Obama to tack to the center. He originally ran as a centrist, a charismatic representative of a new generation that would care more about leadership and bipartisan cooperation than the old party politics, but his first two years in office were both liberal and partisan.

Indeed, with a Democratic White House, Democratic Senate and Democratic House of Representatives, the incentive for a Democratic president was clearly to push as many liberal policies and programs as possible while the Democrats were in the majority everywhere—and to make vocal war on any place with a conservative voice, from the Chambers of Commerce to Fox News to the Supreme Court.

But all of that changes with a split government after the 2010 election. Consider these story lines:

A newly elected American President comes to office replacing the opposing party, has the support of Congress and pushes his partisan agenda strongly in his first two years in office.

He loses support in the midterm election, but still remains firmly committed to his roots and tries to keep pushing his ideological agenda. This was the story of Jimmy Carter and, to a certain extent, Bush I.

At midterm elections, the President’s monolithic advantage crumbles; he faces split government and a big choice. He tacks to the center, works with the other party and becomes known as a centrist President who emphasized leadership. Reagan and Clinton followed this path.

Presidents typically want to follow a third storyline, which is to keep pushing their partisan agenda and gain more and more popularity. There is no example of this working in the entire post-War era.

The incentive for a Democratic president facing a conservative Supreme Court and Republican House is to tack to the center.

It remains to be seen which storyline President Obama will choose. Some say he is too ideological to tack to the center and govern as a leader rather than a liberal reformer, but the same was said of “conservative ideologue” Reagan in 1982 and Clinton in 1994. Both made the switch.

Ironically, many who criticized Obama for running as a centrist and then governing from the left ditch will likely condemn him if he turns to governing from the center. But the pragmatists will give him credit for taking his shot when he had a Democratic Congress to support things he really believed in.

They will also see the practicality of his tacking to the center when it is likely the only way to win a second term and keep getting some, though not all, of his agenda. Note that it took Clinton eight months to come to the new reality and tack to the center.

Independents will likely be more understanding of this process than either Republicans (many of whom will disparage whatever he does) or Democrats (who see nothing but a hard-left agenda as success).

If President Obama finds ways to please the independents in the next two years, mainly by freeing up small business to bring growth and more jobs, he will be in a good place politically in 2012 and beyond. And independents expect Republicans to work with Obama as well.

Policy Shift

Independents determine elections. As believers in checks and balances, they got the best split possible in the 2012 election: A firmly Republican House against a Democratic White House, a barely Democratic Senate balanced by a barely conservative Supreme Court.

Of course, the White House carries a bit more power than the House, unless it stands firm—but even this is offset by more Republican state governments.

The media will probably use the woeful term “gridlock” a lot in the next two years. But many independents are fine with gridlock on the little things (especially if it tends to reduce government overspending)—as long as the big things are handled.

As for 2012, independents generally like Barack Obama. They don’t like his financial strategy, however. At least not right now. They like the man, not the policies.

And they really dislike the health care law—indeed two-thirds of independents see the health care law as a negative or even a disaster to the U.S. economy. The real problems will kick in when the already cash-poor and struggling states are required to drastically increase their spending to meet health care mandates.

Still, the President has the ability to do something nobody else can. He can take on jobs and worries about China simply by de-regulating and lowering taxes on small business in America.

Congress will follow his lead on this, if he pushes it like he did health care. If he gets serious about incentivizing private-sector jobs, he can reboot the economy in significant and even sweeping ways. He will have to make friends with business to do this, which may be beyond his emotional constitution. But business would love such a shift.

Such reconciliation would have to be genuine and even passionate to undo the damage which has already been done.

But Barack Obama is an effective politician, and if he puts his mind to re-incentivizing the economy he can lead Congress to make it happen. He can’t directly repeal health care, but he can sign “McDonald’s-style” exemptions for all of small business, and get the buy-in of Congress.

He can push for reducing the extra spending caused by the health care law, and he can blame any changes he makes to the health care law on the need to wrangle with difficult insurance companies on behalf of small business.

He can also put the emphasis on economic growth policies, as opposed to tax hikes, to balance budgets. And he can lead the West Wing in a studious agenda to pinpoint and reverse all federal laws and policies which hinder small business growth and de-incentivize global investors from bringing capital to the U.S.

The problem, as The Economist Oct. 30, 2010 issue put it, may be that Obama “has lived all his life among tribal democrats” and “seems curiously unable to perceive, let alone respond to, the grievances of middle America…”

Some say he struggles to understand why middle Americans think like they do, and assumes anger and fear makes them cling to things like limited government, or “guns and religion,” as he famously said. He may, as some critics say, consider himself much more intelligent than American voters.

If this is true, and if Obama cannot make the shift to leadership instead of partisanship, the White House will likely adopt the Bush and Clinton rapprochement strategy of appearing more conciliatory to the opposition in Congress while using executive agency policy to keep pushing the party’s ideology and agenda.

This gives the façade of cooperation and leadership without really changing direction. The question remains whether independents and other citizens in the Internet age will be duped by this. The modern voter may well have become too savvy for this kind of end run. Time will tell.

Many in the new Congress have expressed their intent to keep a watch on agency policy—which is a good sign regardless of which party is in power on Capitol Hill.

But while some on both the right and left might hope for a partisan Obama in the next two years, most moderates and independents want him to make the shift and succeed—especially for the sake of small business and the economy.

Some, including David Brooks and Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, describe Obama as less an ideological and more a pragmatic politician who has yet to live up to his leadership potential.

To be continued…


Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.

He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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