Friday, March 8, 2013

The Month in Review: February, 2013: Not A Month for the Obama Scrapbook (March 8, 2013)

February was not a fantastic month for President Obama.  Most significantly, he was out pointed on the sequester, this month’s “crisis.”  As January ended, Republicans were starting to consider the idea of embracing the sequester, and in February they formally adopted this strategy.  They felt they had little choice, since negotiating a tax increase of some kind with President Obama was the only alternative on the table.  Obama had figured the Republicans would never accept the huge defense cuts embedded in the sequester, and would ultimately agree to eliminate some of the more egregious tax loopholes to ward them off.   Figured wrong.

And thus he was left being the only one (with his Cabinet members) shrilly forecasting the dire consequences of following through with the sequester.  Ultimately he had to walk back some of the most apocalyptic adjectives as the outcome became more assured.  But the fact remains that independent estimates suggest 700,000 jobs will be lost due to the $85 billion in automatic cuts, and there are no winners here, only losers.  The GDP will take a half-point hit and progress on the unemployment rate will be stunted.  Perhaps this is what the GOP had in mind all along.

Obama had the best line of the month, discussing his methods of persuasion.  Mixing Star Wars and Star Trek, he said, “The fact that they don’t take {my proposal} means that I should somehow do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right.”  Fans of the two sci-fi series howled, but everyone else seemed amused.

The other major drama of the month was the Chuck Hagel nomination for Secretary of Defense.  Obama was looking for a Republican in the slot, one who could provide cover for the inevitable downsizing of the Pentagon.  Hagel, a decorated war hero and former Senator, seemed the ideal choice.  But his track record of bucking his own party on Iraq (he was a critic of both the war and the surge) as well as a terrible performance in front of the Armed Services Committee added up to outright hostility from his former Republican Senate colleagues.  His nomination passed but by a historically low margin of 58-41, with most Republicans – his former colleagues -- opposing.  No cover there.

All the bad karma showed up in recent Obama approval ratings.  He managed to squeak out a 50% rating for the month, down from 52% for the prior month, but figures over the last week are actually in the mid-high 40’s.

The good news out of all this was energy from both sides to end the fiscal-management-by-crisis approach, and some glimmers of gridlock reduction.  Boehner and Obama agreed that the next fiscal milestone – the March 27 deadline to provide funding to prevent a government shutdown – would not be a flash point, and that Congress would seek to keep the government running through September.  That sets up the debt ceiling limit in May as the next potential “crisis.”  And Obama has begun actively courting the GOP with dinners and lunches.  I suspect Obama still seeks a “grand bargain” as a legacy, and he is selling the basic trade:  I’ll limit entitlements in certain ways if you tax the rich to pay for the cuts.  I doubt that gets done, but four years is a long time for inaction.  Keep an eye on Paul Ryan, who had a private lunch at the White House with Obama.  His next Budget proposal will be unveiled very soon, and will be the House's position for budget negotiations with the Senate in the coming months.

Future Elections

I laid out the basics for the Senate last month:  There are about 10 seats in play in 2014, all currently held by Democrats, and the Democrats have to win five of them to maintain control of the Senate.

The new news is that Carl Levin, the longstanding senior Democratic Senator from Michigan, announced he was retiring.  Levin has served since 1978, and won over 60% of the vote in his last two races (in 2002 and 2008).  Obama carried Michigan with 54% in the last election, so Michigan is reasonably solid terrain for the Democrats.  But still this could put Michigan in play, depending, of course, on who each party puts forward.

The big rumor of the month is that actress Ashley Judd, a Democrat, will challenge Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.  McConnell will defend his seat to the death and likely survive, but a Hollywood challenge would bring in major bucks and likely force the GOP to allocate more resources to Kentucky than they would have otherwise.

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