The "Thank You Sir, May I Have Another" President
In January 2009, President Obama journeyed to Capitol Hill to meet with Congressional Republicans on the stimulus. Unbeknownst to the President, Minority Leader John Boehner had already instructed his entire GOP caucus to vote "no" on the bill they were to discuss with Obama. Now, history is repeating. Even as the President was asking his Republican White House guests Tuesday to look for "common ground" on taxes, the GOP leadership was already promising to block him on everything else.
Of course, with their record-setting use of the filibuster, unprecedented obstruction of presidential nominees, and unified no votes on almost every major piece of legislation, the past performance of Congressional Republicans should have been a guarantee of future results for Barack Obama. But with his self-defeating obsession with bipartisanship, Obama has committed himself to being the "thank you, sir, may I have another?" President.
Even before Barack Obama took the oath office, Republicans leaders, conservative think-tanks and right-wing pundits were calling for total obstruction of the new president's agenda. Bill Kristol, who helped block Bill Clinton's health care reform attempt in 1993, called for history to repeat on the Obama stimulus - and everything else. Pointing with pride to the Clinton economic program which received exactly zero GOP votes in either House, Kristol in January 2009 advised:
"That it made, that it made it so much easier to then defeat his health care initiative. So, it's very important for Republicans who think they're going to have to fight later on on health care, fight later on maybe on some of the bank bailout legislation, fight later on on all kinds of issues.."
And so, as the chart above reveals, it came to pass.
On issue after issue, even when President Obama extended his hand, Republicans showed him the back of theirs. Despite dedicating 40% of the $787 billion stimulus package to tax cuts (making it, as Steve Benen noted, the "biggest tax cut ever"), Obama got no GOP votes in the House and only three in the Senate. Months of painful concessions to supposedly moderate Senate Republicans only served to produce a watered-down health care bill - and no GOP support.
Time after time, President Obama could count the votes he received from Congressional Republicans on the fingers (usually the middle) of one hand. The expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) to four million more American kids earned the backing of a whopping eight GOP Senators. (One of them, Arlen Specter, later became a Democrat.) Badly needed Wall Street reform eventually overcame GOP filibusters to pass with the support of just three Republicans in the House and Senate, respectively. This summer, it took 50 days for President Obama to get past Republican filibusters of extended unemployment benefits and the Small Business Jobs Act. As for the DISCLOSE Act, legislation designed to limit the torrent of secret campaign cash unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, in September Republican Senators prevented it from ever coming to a vote.
And when they weren't showing up to vote no on President Obama's initiatives, Senate Republicans blocked voting altogether.
Back in 2007, former Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott explained the successful Republican strategy for derailing the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate:
"The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail. So far it's working for us."
And the Republicans of the 110th Congress were just getting warmed up. The Senate GOP hadn't merely shattered the previous records for filibusters. As McClatchy reported in February 2010, the Republicans of the 111th Congress vowed to block virtually everything, counting on voters to blame Democrats for the GOP's own roadblocks:
As even Robert Samuelson (no friend of Democrats) acknowledged, "From 2003 to 2006, when Republicans controlled the Senate, they filed cloture 130 times to break Democratic filibusters. Since 2007, when Democrats took charge, they've filed 257 cloture motions." The Senate's own records reveal obstructionism is the new normal for Republicans:
The Republicans didn't merely eviscerate the old mark for cloture motions and filibusters after their descent into the minority in 2007. As Paul Krugman detailed, the GOP's obstructionism has fundamentally altered how the Senate does - or more accurately, doesn't do - business:
The political scientist Barbara Sinclair has done the math. In the 1960s, she finds, "extended-debate-related problems" -- threatened or actual filibusters -- affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980s, that had risen to 27 percent. But after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006 and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent.
Earlier this year, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow put those numbers of threatened or actual filibusters into an easy-to-read chart so simple that even John McCain could understand it:
But for Barack Obama, the perpetual Republican roadblock isn't just personal. It's personnel.
While the GOP in the 111th Congress has turned to the filibuster at more than double the previous Democratic rates, Barack Obama's nominees to the federal bench are half as likely to be confirmed.
That's the jaw-dropping conclusion of an analysis this summer by the Center for American Progress. Thanks to the Republicans' historic use of Filibusters, anonymous holds, and other obstructionist tactics, President Obama's confirmation rate is "falling off a cliff." The CAP assessment of data from the Congressional Research Service, the Justice Department and the Senate Judiciary Committee found that:
Such tactics are completely unprecedented, and so are their results. Fewer than 43 percent of President Obama's judicial nominees have so far been confirmed, while past presidents have enjoyed confirmation rates as high as 93 percent. And President Obama's nominees have been confirmed at a much slower rate than those of his predecessor--nearly 87 percent of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees were confirmed.
To be sure, the Republicans' successful rearguard action is helping to preserve conservative dominance of the federal judiciary. But with its sluggish pace of nominations, the Obama administration isn't helping itself.
Last November Charlie Savage of the New York Times warned that the "opportunities to reshape judiciary are slipping away." And Republican obstructionism was only part of the story:
By this point in 2001, the Senate had confirmed five of Mr. Bush's appellate judges -- although one was a Clinton pick whom Mr. Bush had renominated -- and 13 of his district judges. By contrast, Mr. Obama has received Senate approval of just two appellate and four district judges...
Mr. Bush, who made it an early goal to push conservatives into the judicial pipeline and left a strong stamp on the courts, had already nominated 28 appellate and 36 district candidates at a comparable point in his tenure. By contrast, Mr. Obama has offered 12 nominations to appeals courts and 14 to district courts.
In March, the Los Angeles Times reported that the same dynamic of a distracted Obama White House and scorched-earth Republican opposition was continuing to leave vacancies across the federal courts:
During President Obama's first year, judicial nominations trickled out of the White House at a far slower pace than in President George W. Bush's first year. Bush announced 11 nominees for federal appeals courts in the fourth month of his tenure. Obama didn't nominate his 11th appeals court judge until November, his 10th month in office...
Key slots stand without nominees, including two on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the body that reviews decisions by federal agencies and a court that is considered second in importance only to the Supreme Court. Federal judicial vacancies nationwide have mushroomed to well over 100, with two dozen more expected before the end of the year. To date, the Obama administration has nominees for just 52 of those slots, and only 17 have been confirmed.
And that's just federal judges. In February, Americans learned that Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby single-handedly put a hold on 70 nominees destined for slots across the Obama administration. At the current pace of GOP procedural delays, another CAP study suggested in September, confirming all of the President's nominees could literally take years.
Unbelievably, the Republicans' scorched earth campaign to block the Obama agenda hardly ends there. Hoping for better luck than in Bill Clinton's time, GOP leaders have threatened to shutdown the government both during the upcoming lame duck session and, as means of killing health care reform, during the 112th Congress. (In September, Senator Jim Demint briefly played chicken with the "Doomsday Device," warning his colleagues he might opt to "place a hold on all legislation that has not been 'hot-lined' by the chamber or has not been cleared by his office.") And then there's the "I word."
I, as in "Impeachment." While Darrell Issa (R-CA), GOP's would-be chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said last week there's "not a chance at this point" that he will pursue a baseless impeachment crusade against President Obama, Issa and his colleagues have already hinted that everyone should expect the Republican Inquisition. In July, Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Congresswoman and the head of the new Congressional Tea Party caucus, vowed perpetual investigations of the Obama administration:
"Oh, I think that's all we should do. I think that all we should do is issue subpoenas and have one hearing after another, and expose all the nonsense that has gone on."
In August, Politico detailed the plans of Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Lamar Smith (R-TX) to lead a new Republican majority into perpetual investigations of the White House. It's no wonder that Clinton veteran Lanny Davis lamented, "I actually think it will be even worse than what happened to Bill Clinton because of the animosity they already feel for President Obama." In its preview of the potential "season of subpoenas", Politico reported:
Everything from the microscopic -- the New Black Panther party -- to the massive -- think bailouts -- is on the GOP to-do list, according to a half-dozen Republican aides interviewed by POLITICO...
Issa would like Obama's cooperation, says Kurt Bardella, spokesman for the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But it's not essential.
"How acrimonious things get really depend on how willing the administration is in accepting our findings [and] responding to our questions," adds Bardella, who refers to his boss as "questioner-in-chief.'
Then in an October 19 interview with Rush Limbaugh, Issa jumped the shark as he described America's potential future under Republican majority rule on Capitol Hill:
"You know, there will be a certain degree of gridlock as the president adjusts to the fact that he has been one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times."
And so its goes.
On January 5th, 2009, Krugman warned then President-elect Obama about the stimulus plan, "Look, Republicans are not going to come on board. Make 40% of the package tax cuts, they'll demand 100%." The next day on January 6th, Krugman warned that the $787 billion recovery package was not only too small, but would pose dire political consequences for President Obama:
I see the following scenario: a weak stimulus plan, perhaps even weaker than what we're talking about now, is crafted to win those extra GOP votes. The plan limits the rise in unemployment, but things are still pretty bad, with the rate peaking at something like 9 percent and coming down only slowly. And then Mitch McConnell says "See, government spending doesn't work."
Two years later, Krugman's Law is still in effect. Despite overwhelming public support (even on Election Day) to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent of Americans, President Obama outsourced the building of a compromise that will almost certainly break his popular campaign promise. And in return for his flexibility, Obama received not thanks from appreciative Republicans, but an extortion letter.
From the beginning, Republicans have been clear that whatever the question, the answer is no. And yet, two years after he took the oath office, President Obama is still asking for more of the same.
UPDATE: Almost on cue, Howard Fineman writes, "Obama's naivete on bipartisanship has finally caught up to him." Meanwhile, outgoing Ohio Governor Ted Strickland pleads with the President to see the light about his GOP adversaries:
"After all of this you don't realize these people want to destroy you and your agenda? How many times do you have to be, you know, slapped in the face?"