Obama needs to work with GOP

The sequestration once again highlights the stalemate between President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Although Obama seems reluctant he must find a way to at least attract some GOP congresspersons. With 201 Democrats in the House, Obama could attract 17 moderate Republicans, but this would take important concessions. It does the president no good to constantly bemoan Republican intransigence; if he wants some of his programs he will have to find a way to break the deadlock.

Recently Democratic Rep. Steve Israel suggested that Obama double down on trying to take the House in 2014. This is both impractical and improbable. Franklin Roosevelt did well in the 1934 midterms, while John Kennedy broke even in 1962, as did Bill Clinton in 1998. George W. Bush actually gained seats in 2002, but these were slight. Breaking even usually is considered good enough for midterms – but gaining more than 10 seats for the incumbent party is rare. Anyway the hill is usually too high.

So Obama is going to have to show imagination and some empathy for Republicans. The increase taxes rhetoric would probably be good to discard, for the GOP is not going to budge. This is understandable; this would be like the Democrats blithely conceding Social Security. Perhaps the problem lays in hoping for a “grand bargain” – an omnibus package that usually has enough in it to offend everyone and please virtually nobody. Simpson-Bowles, although a masterful plan, nevertheless is hard to sell. Neither Obama nor John Boehner have shown enthusiasm for the measure.

Given that half of the budget cuts involve defense, Obama could offer some concessions on some budget priorities in exchange for restoration of some military spending. Yet Republicans would have to concede a bit on their favored parts of the budget. However neither side can repudiate fundamental principles. Parties do matter and to ask a favor of your opponent that you might be hard pressed to grant is unreasonable.

Obama and the Democrats need to offer Republican concessions point by point. The general approach so represented by the “grand bargain” only reminds Republicans and Democrats of their ideological objections. A smaller, more specific approach might just work and it certainly beats carping about circumstances that cannot be altered. For Obama it might have benefits to offer Republicans something of value – if they object then the point is made for the GOP it is only rule or ruin. But the GOP is not held in thrall by the Tea Party; many conventional conservatives have held the line which indicates that Obama has not, as eager as his words have been, to find common ground.

The victory lap by Obama shortly after the election, given his opponents behavior, was understandable, but it needs to be stopped. It does Democrats little good to argue that they won the election if it prevents them from getting anything substantial done. As well, their talk about gerrymandering should be dropped.

From the 1970s on, Democrats controlled the House using the same device. Until 1994 Texas had disproportional numbers of Democrats thanks to the same tactic. Screaming over the rule book or deploring challenges to voters should be discontinued. Maybe during election years it is permissible but afterwards it is tedious and hypocritical.

But Obama cannot be asked to surrender his presidency in order to get a little from Republicans. He needs to probe the defenses of the GOP, testing their willingness to “compromise.”

A dearth of histrionics and a reduction of passion would be welcomed.