Now that Congress has finally acted to end the latest economic crisis, President Obama can take a short-lived victory lap.
Victory or not, he might have avoided the protracted drama called the fiscal cliff some time ago if he had acted like a lion instead of a mouse.
To grasp the president’s role in instigating this latest political turmoil on Capitol Hill, it might help to revisit an event in the summer of 2011.
That was when Obama entered a showdown with Republicans over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
No sooner had they sat down to negotiate than the president essentially gave conservatives the deal they wanted, and without even pretending to put up a fight.
After the negotiations, many liberals complained that Obama caved too early and much too easily. Even his Democratic allies questioned their party leader’s bargaining skills.
Perhaps because the president is so intellectually gifted many people assumed Obama was orchestrating some brilliant tactical move.
Maybe he was trying to keep his campaign promise to try to change the way Washington works. Or possibly in demonstrating a willingness to compromise, he was leading by example and hoping Republicans would follow suit.
Whatever the strategy, it didn’t work.
After watching the political dysfunction that stalled the congressional action needed to avoid the infamous fiscal cliff, it appears the president’s handling of the 2011 talks haunted, not helped him this time around.
I am convinced there is some correlation between Obama’s timid approach to the negotiations in 2011 and the ugly political wrangling that has spilled over into 2013.
Here’s why: When he engaged in the debt ceiling talks 18 months ago, the president faced a gang of conservatives who had publicly committed to making sure he failed.
He may have naively thought he was being noble by compromising with such devoted enemies. But in hindsight it seems apparent that Republicans came away from the experience convinced the president was a bit of a chump.
Unlike Bill Clinton, who often outmaneuvered the GOP, Obama seemed to lack the appetite or disposition for the political brawl. The 2011 debt ceiling deal was such a cakewalk for Republicans that it stands to reason they had to test him again.
That’s partly why the past two months seemed more like a high stakes game of “chicken” than a dignified legislative affair.
Some pundits were confident Obama would prevail on the fiscal cliff issue because he had the upper hand on public relations. If the deal didn’t go through, the reasoning went, Republicans would shoulder the blame and face an irate electorate.
Like many, I certainly believe the blame for those 11th-hour theatrics rests mostly with congressional Republicans. Their obsession with tax breaks for millionaires and spending cuts has been downright reckless.
But in the end it actually doesn’t matter who gets blamed for dragging us through months of political bickering that threatens the nation’s chances for economic recovery. What matters most is that it’s the American people – not politicians – who literally stand to pay the price.
Financial experts say that there will be economic consequences regardless of what happens from here on out. It starts with the payroll deduction increase that will take effect. That increase could have been avoided if a deal had been struck sooner.
Now, the average American will see 6.2 percent deducted from her paycheck, instead of the 4.2 percent taken out before. That’s roughly $1,000 more deducted from a person earning $50,000 per year.
The sting of that increase will ripple across an already struggling economy, and it may last throughout the year.
Though this particular battle of brinkmanship is over, there are still more to come. After witnessing this latest catastrophe, I have lost faith in Republicans and Democrats alone to get things done.
For quite awhile now, many folks have insisted the nation’s political system is broken. This latest circus act on Capitol Hill has made that abundantly clear.
It’s also as clear that, looking ahead, us regular folks had better find a way to prevent politicians from toying with our emotions and picking our pockets.
For starters, it might help to get really serious about expanding the two-party system. We need a major third party choice, and maybe even a fourth.
It’s also essential to purge Congress of Republican extremists, especially those uncompromising Tea party types, who seem stuck in colonial thinking. The midterm elections will provide an opening to send them off the cliff.
As for Obama, the president is starting to show signs that he finally gets it: He cannot be tepid with Republicans.
In his first news conference since winning re-election to a second term, Obama strongly defended U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice against GOP criticism of her response to last September’s attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
And just this week, the president said he will refuse to debate Republicans over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling to pay for spending proposals they have already approved.
This is the kind of bare-knuckled assertiveness his supporters have been wanting to see in the Commander-In-Chief.
They want to see him act more like a lion. They want to see him roar.
NOTE: This column was first published in Atlanta Black Star