Paul Ryan; Mark Meadows (Credit: AP/Susan Walsh)
What a difference eight years makes. At this point back in 2008, President-elect Barack Obama was systematically putting together his cabinet, studying policy briefs and pretty much keeping a low profile as he and his team prepared to take over the most important job in the world. Obama did some interviews and made himself otherwise available to the press from time to time, but there were no victory rallies or abrupt reversals of decades of diplomatic protocols.
As the inauguration grew closer, Obama gathered bipartisan luminaries from both parties to break bread with him, get to know him a little bit and understand his overall strategy. A few days before the election he spent an evening laying out what he called a Grand Bargain, which was described by one attendee, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne:
The “grand bargain” they are talking about is a mix and match of boldness and prudence. It involves expansive government where necessary, balanced by tough management, unpopular cuts — and, yes, eventually some tax increases. Everyone, they say, will have to give up something. Only such a balance, they argue, will win broad support for what Obama wants to do, and thus make his reforms “sustainable,” the other magic word — meaning that even Republicans, when they eventually get back to power, will choose not to reverse them.
The pillars of the Grand Bargain were health care reform, “entitlement reform,” tax reform and limits on carbon emissions.
The White House immediately set up a “Fiscal Responsibility Summit” and the president told his staff that he expected the “difficult choices” that had to be made about Social Security and Medicare to be made on his watch. He reportedly said, “We’ve kicked this can down the road and now we are at the end of the road.”
As we know, George W. Bush’s financial crisis had the world economy in a tailspin, so Job One was to try to keep it from crashing and burning. The first order of business was an economic rescue package and it was an unexpectedly heavy lift, only gaining a handful of Republican votes for a much smaller stimulus than was necessary. Nonetheless, it did pass and managed to provide some breathing room.
The White House and the Democrats spent the next year trying to pass health care reform and only managed to do it with party-line votes and parliamentary maneuvering. The Republicans were not going to help, and therefore had no stake in making the program sustainable. Nonetheless, the president persisted in this idea that if Democrats could achieve “balance” by giving the Republicans some of what they wanted, such as cutting “entitlement” programs in exchange for letting the Bush tax cuts expire on schedule, he could get buy-in for his Grand Bargain.
The passage of the Affordable Care Act angered the Republicans so much that it created the grassroots uprising known as the Tea Party, which propelled the GOP into a majority in the House in the 2010 midterm election. Nonetheless, the president did everything he could to make good on his offer, creating bipartisan commissions to create consensus and repeatedly putting Social Security cuts on the menu in budget negotiations.