Can citizen power break The Gridlock?

Posted at 11/13/2012 7:19 PM

“The role of a citizen in our democracy does not end with your vote. America's never been about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That's the principle we were founded on.”

That’s newly re-elected President Barack Obama delivering the most important message in his victory speech. It reminds you of John F Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” But what’s significant in Obama’s case is the practical application of this message to the problem that will confront him and the nation even before inaugural day.

The problem is political gridlock. Obama’s re-election gives him political leverage he didn’t have specially during the second half of his first term. But the expected stubborn defiance of the tea party fringe of the Republican Party will test Obama even before the year is over.

Dealing with the “fiscal cliff” is Obama’s first post-election challenge. According to Wikipedia, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, was the first person to use the term "fiscal cliff" for this crisis. Testifying before the House Financial Services Committee in late February 2012, Bernanke warned that "a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases" would take place on January 1, 2013.

By way of background from Wikipedia, on August 2, 2011, Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 as part of an agreement to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis. A part of the Act directs automatic across-the-board cuts (known as "sequestrations"), split evenly between defense and domestic spending, beginning January 2, 2013 if they are unable to produce legislation that would decrease the deficit by $1.2 trillion over ten years.

It was thought that by putting at risk items dear to Republicans and other items dear to Democrats, both parties would want to come to a compromise. The Democrats want to protect middle class entitlements and the Republicans want to protect the tax privileges of the 1 per cent as well the interests of large defense contractors who are also among their largest political contributors.

But both parties are standing their ground. If there is still no compromise deficit reduction plan before Americans start singing Auld Lang Syne on December 31, they fall over the “fiscal cliff.” Bush tax cuts and a huge part of the defense budget turn to dust. Both rich and middle class start paying higher taxes, the unemployed and the sick lose some benefits and defense contractors lose expected revenues from projects.

There are those who say a severe recession will descend upon America that will raise unemployment beyond tolerable levels if they fall over the “fiscal cliff.” It is said that the condition of the American economy today is too fragile to withstand a combination of tax increases and spending cuts.

There are those who say there is time, even beyond the first quarter of next year, to negotiate a deal. The predicted dire consequences to the economy are not going to happen as 2012 gives way to 2013.

Well, it looks like the Republicans are going to test how tough the newly energized Obama will be. House Speaker John Boehner made noises about willingness to compromise “under the right conditions.” But he quickly added raising taxes isn’t the right thing to do.

According to the Financial Times, “many senior Republicans have accepted over time that the government needs to generate higher revenues if it wants to solve its fiscal problems. But their definition of ‘revenue’ frequently puts them at odds with Democrats and the White House.

“Republicans believe marginal tax rates, including on wages, investments and inheritance should not be raised at any cost – and Mr Boehner suggested he remained wedded to this position. But Democrats say tax rates should go up for the wealthy.”

The emboldened support base of Obama will likely put pressure on the newly reelected President to stay the course and meet the bluff of the Republicans. No agreement is better than a bad agreement, as Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman puts it.

“Republicans are trying, for the third time since he took office, to use economic blackmail to achieve a goal they lack the votes to achieve through the normal legislative process… they are, in effect, threatening to tank the economy unless their demands are met…. Well, this has to stop — unless we want hostage-taking, the threat of making the nation ungovernable, to become a standard part of our political process… Just say no and go over the cliff if necessary.”

Indeed, some Democrats are saying Obama need not do anything at all. The newly victorious Democrats are also quite certain the impact of the cuts on entitlement programs such as unemployment benefits will be so severe that Republicans will be quickly forced to compromise to ease pressure from their own constituents.

The Atlantic suggests that the new Obama is not going to be an easy pushover for the Republicans. Obama is more likely to push back and use People Power, a term Filipinos understand, to break the political gridlock in Washington. The Atlantic calls that approach “outsider strategy."

This approach has already helped Obama to get his way around the Republicans who control the House in the 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' situation with gays in the military. Obama supported ending that treatment of military gays but things only started moving after the Log Cabin Republicans, or gay members of the Republican Party filed suit.

As The Atlantic recalled, “activists protested vigorously, blogged, wrote op-eds, withheld donations and generally fomented discontent and a sense of urgency that lawmakers had to listen to.”

Obama subsequently told a forum that what happened to that issue taught him a lesson: “You can’t change Washington from the inside, you can only change it from the outside.” That’s apparently, how he will go about getting what he wants and break the political gridlock.

First, let us see the difference between the insider and outsider strategies of doing business in Washington. The insider approach uses closed-door meetings, backroom approaches to get a deal done. This is the approach Obama used to try reaching a compromise on the fiscal deficit problem. It didn’t work.

The insider approach only keeps the power brokers in the loop. When negotiation breaks down, the President can’t get the people to rally behind him because he kept them out of the loop.

In the case of outsider strategy, the White House uses the public to put a strong clamor for a reform measure. This needs a public pressure so strong the President and the political leaders of both parties have no choice but to agree. In a sense, this is what democracy is about--active participation of citizens beyond casting their ballots.

The Atlantic noted that “Obama discussed his need to adopt more of an outsider strategy just before the 2010 mid-terms while discussing his shortcomings in this area.” Obama told The New York Times: "I think anybody who's occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics, and that you can't be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion." That’s a lesson Malacañang should also internalize.

One of the tenets of outsider politics is that public opinion matters and therefore transparency matters. In outsider politics, the power of the people plays a fundamental role in a bringing about a desired outcome, the Atlantic noted.

Expect the Obama administration to use analytics as practiced by Nate Silver to measure public sentiment. Knowing the public pulse is essential in effectively using “people power” or the outsider strategy. They cannot go in blindly. They must focus on the data, use analytics to enable them to make the decisions that will move their agenda.

So the Atlantic observes that “today, there's a strong case to be made that Obama's second term will feature a chief executive who uses both an inside and an outside game to advance progressive ideals.”

The Atlantic is confident “Obama now knows how and when to pull the levers of Washington to his advantage…”  Obama now has the experience, the counsel, and the conviction to effectively deal with political obstruction from the Republicans.

Will Obama actually be able to muster enough citizen action to break the Washington Gridlock? Hopefully he does as the future not just of America’s economy but the world’s depend on it. The International Monetary Fund has called for a quick deal on the “fiscal cliff." Even an 11th hour deal, the IMF said, can positively affect global economic confidence and growth.

What we all need is an Obama who knows how to use the powers of his office and the triumphant aura of his re-election to get things done. Can citizen power break the Washington Gridlock?

That remains to be seen.


Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @boochanco