Still Playing the Long Game

So the president’s back from Florida today, and is immediately putting public pressure on congressional Republicans to accept a sequester replacement deal involving higher revenues via loophole-closing. Giving new life to the ancient tactic known as “firemen first” (highlighting the most popular services affected by budget cuts), Obama’s posing with threatened first responders; soon we’ll have a whole cavalcade of soon-to-be-victims of the sequester marching across our TV screens.

Surely congressional Republicans will cave, eh? If their most prominent line on the sequester is to blame it on Obama, can they really resist a deal? And will their friends in the military-industrial complex ever forgive them for what’s going to happen to defense contractors under the sequester?

I don’t know about that last question, but yes, Republicans are almost certain to prefer the horrors of the sequester to any further backsliding on revenues; in that respect, their “flinch” in the “fiscal cliff” fight made future deals less, not more likely. Salon’s Steve Kornacki explains why Obama’s current full-court-press is based on an assumption that Republicans have probably done all the deals they are going to do before the midterm elections:

it makes sense for the White House to push hard now and test just how far the GOP is willing to budge in its somewhat confused current state. But there’s probably a longer-term calculation at work too, one rooted in a recognition that there’s only so much Obama can achieve with Republicans running the House – and that there’s only so far those Republicans will ultimately go.

This explains why in his State of the Union Speech Obama was so emphatic about simply calling for a vote on his gun control agenda – to the point that he even told members of Congress that “you can vote ‘no’ if you want.” This reflects the D.O.A. status of several Obama proposals. A renewed ban on assault weapons, for instance, would have almost no chance of clearing the House, and maybe even the Senate. The prospects for limits on high-capacity magazines aren’t much better.

Run through the rest of Obama’s recently announced agenda, and with the exception of immigration reform, where Republicans have their own reasons for wanting an agreement, prospects are even worse than with gun control.

Some Democrats will say Obama is positioning his party for the kind of big gains in 2014 that will enable him to go out with a bang in the last two years of his presidency. Realistically, that’s not likely to happen.

In a very real sense, the two parties may just be maneuvering for long-term advantage, with the next “breakthrough” election for either side being 2016.

I suggested last week that this may be the real explanation for the president’s notably upbeat tone of late: aside from emergencies, much of his work is done, in the sense that he has some real accomplishments and is largely preempted from having any more of them. He’ll do what he can to make sure Republicans take the blame for the sequester, and then will fight to undo some of the damage in the immediately ensuring negotiations over the expiration of the continuing resolution on appropriations. But assuming Republicans have permanently eschewed the threat of a debt default, March should close the curtain on the last regularly scheduled fiscal crises until the midterms or perhaps even longer. Obama’s “long game” may be focused on partisan dynamics that will play out when he’s playing golf a lot more regularly.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.