Right now, the President is out pushing Congress to prevent interest rates from going up on student loans, and the nominee apparent of the GOP is running like the wind away from his previous positions to endorse the president's. That will likely get done, too.
The conventional wisdom on legislative achievements in an election year is that it doesn't happen. Except for a few appropriation bills that it takes to keep the government running, amidst all the election year stuff, members of Congress are really just too busy to do their job. But remember that President Obama's two biggest reforms (health reform and Wall Street reform) were passed through Congress in an election year - namely, 2010. What about 2012? We keep hearing nothing is going to get things done this year, but conspicuously enough, the president keeps getting substantive legislative accomplishment in the middle of an election year - perhaps a few even because of this being an election year.
Don't believe me? Here's a short, quick-and-dirty, far-from-comprehensive list of what's already passed and been signed into law year:
- Legislation passed and signed to help startups.
- Legislation passed and signed to ban insider trading in Congress.
- Extension (and reforming) of unemployment benefits, as well as payroll tax cuts - the first tax cuts for the working poor in recent memory.
- Breaking stalemate in FAA funding.
It's strategic, but a big part of the credit belongs to the mind-numbing dumbness of the national Republican party. Had they resolved the payroll tax cut and unemployment extension fight last year, instead of handing President Obama and the Democrats a present in the form of a two-month extension which meant that they would be having a debate Democrats clearly won and Republicans clearly lost once again in the middle of the Republican primary, Boehner's capitulation wouldn't have been so embarrassing. Had they worked with Harry Reid to solve FAA's funding issues last year, again, there would have been no need to re-argue it this year.
The GOP's strategic failures are directly related to their seething anger at the black man in the White House (and yes, it's in huge part about race). President Obama recognized something most pols usually miss: you never make a good decision when you're angry. And Republicans are angry at the president for beating them, for pursuing policies contrary to their corporate agenda and playing them for complete idiots. In their anger, their goal in everything they do is to beat or embarrass the president - rather than to make America a better place - and the president is taking full advantage of it. Here's a look at how:
The 2010 post-election tax deal
The President, in the middle of a huge Democratic election loss, moves in to get policies through that would eventually spell doom for the Republicans. He made them a deal they couldn't refuse: they got to renew the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy for two additional years while the President extracted the first tax cuts for the working poor in the form of a payroll tax cut, forcing general funds to make up for the lost revenue in the social security trust fund, shifting some of the burden of the social safety net, at least temporarily, from a flat tax to a progressive tax. He also got his assistance for middle class families - the expanded earned income tax credit, student assistance and unemployment benefits extension - extended.
But he got some of the Obama side of this equation - the unemployment benefits extension and the payroll tax cut - only for a year. That gave the illusion to the Republicans that they won by extending their rich buddy tax breaks for two. That even made many liberals complain.
In hindsight (and I guarantee you this wasn't hindsight for the Obama team), that turned out to be a brilliant political move. It ensured that Washington would have a debate about renewing middle class benefits and tax cuts for every person who works for a living in the middle of a heated election season - end of 2011/beginning of 2012. Then, confounding all intelligence, the GOP handed the Democrats another victory by only extending these policies for two months at the end of 2011, ensuring that a debate in which Democrats cleaned GOP's clocks would happen again in the middle of GOP crazy season, I mean their presidential primaries.
And lo and behold, the president got his extensions, Republicans were exposed for the agents of the super rich, and they lost a lot of political capital fighting against the extensions they eventually capitulated to.
The 2011 debt limit deal
In 2011, the President gave the Republicans a genuine chance to rise above petty bickering and take bold steps to solve big problems. He asked them to put aside their ideological banter and ask their uber-wealthy pals to pay their fair share to invest in America's future. In return, he put the Left's ideological banter aside and offered modest adjustments to Social Security and Medicare to preserve the guarantee and contain cost.
The Republicans, of course, revolted over that plan - as the President likely knew they would over anything that would be seen as a victory for him, even if that meant a victory for the Republicans in Congress as well - and we came perilously close to defaulting.
So in the last minute deal, the president protected the social safety net benefits and programs for the poor, and put everything else, including defense spending on the line for automatic cuts, beginning in 2013. While everyone in the political world, including many luminaries on the "Left" were screaming about what a raw deal that was, the President knew better.
Thanks to that deal, Republicans are scurrying now to find ways to reverse the cuts their defense contractor friends while giving bigger tax giveaways to the Romney class, and further exposing themselves as the party that wants to literally steal food from the mouths of children to fund their tax breaks for millionaires. Not only did the Republicans fail to force the President and the Democrats to accept Paul Ryan's social Darwinism of a budget that year (which really was their goal in the debt limit drama), they lost their chance to enact those draconian measures this year as well. With no debt limit hanging over the head before the election, Republicans lost their chance to stuff austerity down the throats of the American people.
Both the demise of the Romney-Ryan Path to Poverty and the GOP's rush to give more tax giveaways to the rich, without the dark shadow of default, were key to opening up a new conversation in American politics - which would focus on socio-economic disparities and what it truly means to have an opportunity society. Without the specter of default, Republicans are unable to use crisis mode to make their faulty arguments, and the president is free to emphasize the importance of investing in research, students, children, infrastructure, consumer protection and the social compact. And the president, by all measures, is winning that debate.
The social issues: repeal of DADT in 2010, and women's health in 2012
One thing Republicans were sure they'd have an upper hand on was social issues. After the president successfully repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the Republicans spent 2011 attacking women's rights and gay people both in Congress and in the states. Virginia's Teapublican governor rolled back the state's protection for gay students. Republicans everywhere started pursuing restrictions on women's reproductive rights and forcing women to listen to state-sponsored propaganda should they choose to have an abortion.
In the midst of all that, HHS issued regulations requiring insurance companies to cover contraceptives as a preventive care, and that just blew up the crazy Right. That event brought into focus the Republican war on women that'd been waged quietly for decades and accelerated since the red wave in 2010.
And in that context, now comes the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. Don't fool yourself and think for a moment that the President didn't know that this was coming up when he responded to the Republican attacks on women's basic rights earlier this year. In the Senate, Democrats seems to have played their hand brilliantly by expanding this law to protect domestic violence victims regardless of their sexual orientation or immigration/national status. Republicans in the House of course don't think gay people or women of undocumented status deserve protection from domestic violence and sexual assault, and it's doubtful they much believe in women's right to safety against violence at any rate.
The American people have seen throughout last year, and since early this year, the Republican proverbial war against women. In resisting the Violence Against Women Act, the Republicans are showing that their war on women is actually quite literal. The Republicans don't believe in women being protected, and they don't want to give the President who is already running away with the female vote yet more achievements that women like. But if they don't, or drag their feet, they will only be accelerating the flight of women away from them - which may be the only reason the VAWA renewal will actually pass. Talk about an election year bind!
When we, the president's most ardent supporters, talk about a rope-a-dope strategy against the Republicans, we are often ridiculed by many as conjuring up an imaginary world in which the president is playing eleven-dimensional chess. But that is exactly what is going on here. The president gave the Republicans tons of rope, and he knew that in their anger and their despise for a black man in the White House, they would hang themselves with it. And once they do, all he has to do is tighten the knot. That's what he's doing, making them choose between electorally damaging choices and giving him legislative accomplishments. And that's how he's racking up significant legislative victories in an election year, from a hostile Congress.