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Obama’s Second Term Focus

December 3, 2012

President Obama’s most important priority as he starts his second term is dealing with the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ — $600 billion worth of tax increases and spending cuts that will go effect on January 1st unless Congress can reach a compromise to cut the budget deficit.

A lot of pundits believe the outlines of a mega-deal are taking shape but there is a long way to go before the two sides reach agreement. Such a deal would include some form of compromise by Republicans on taxing the wealthy — those making more than $250,000 a year. It might include a combination of a higher tax rate on the highest income brackets and limits on tax deductions that predominantly favor the well to do.

But it’s also becoming clear that Democrats will have to give up something on the issue of entitlement reform, by accepting steps to rein in the costs of popular but increasingly expensive programs like Medicare (health care for the elderly), Medicaid (health care for the poor and disabled) and perhaps even the Social Security pension system.

We are still in the period of each side trying to maximize its political leverage before the real negotiations. It would appear the president’s re-election victory has given him a bit of an edge on the issue of taxes, and some Republicans are already conceding they may have to back down from their demand that there be no tax increases of any kind. At the same time, Democrats will start to squeal if the president seems to be weakening on entitlement reform and giving too much away to the Republicans as the negotiating intensifies. As long as both sides are squealing in roughly equal fashion, the prospects for a deal may be bright. But there’s a long way to go and this drama is likely to play out over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday, so stay tuned.

Partisan Battle Over Rice

If the president decides to nominate Susan Rice as his next secretary of state it will likely intensify what has already become a nasty partisan battle over who should succeed Hillary Clinton.

Republicans continue to pound away at Rice’s comments shortly after the September 11th attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. The administration tried to assuage some of those concerns this week by sending Rice up to Capitol Hill for closed door sessions with some key critics. But Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte seemed to come away singularly unimpressed with her performance even as the president gave Rice a public vote of confidence during his cabinet meeting.

Some analysts believe Rice will win Senate confirmation despite the Libya controversy if the president goes ahead and nominates her. But others foresee a major political fight that could result in a ragged beginning to the president’s second term and that could have an impact on other bipartisan efforts — including the attempt to avoid the fiscal cliff at the end of the year.

Republicans Debate Their Future

From the point of view of Democrats, Mitt Romney is the gift that keeps on giving. Not long after his defeat at the hands of President Barack Obama, Mr. Romney told some of his high-rolling fundraisers that he lost the election because the Obama White House had become expert at bestowing gifts on certain key voting groups including African-Americans, Hispanics and young people.

In terms of young voters, for example, Mr. Romney was quoted as saying that forgiveness of college loan interest was “a big gift.” And then he asserting that free contraceptives were “very big” with college-aged women. And when it came to winning Hispanic votes, Mr. Romney said what he called “free health care” was a “big plus,” along with the president’s executive order to proceed with the Dream Act, which provides amnesty for the children of illegal immigrants.

The remarks managed to offend three key voting groups who had helped propel Mr. Obama to victory. They also reminded many voters of remarks Mr. Romney made tape at a closed fundraiser earlier in the year. In that event, he was caught on tape saying that 47 percent of voters will support the president no matter what because they see themselves as victims and are dependent on the government.

Republican Backlash

The reaction to the post-election Romney comments was fast and furious, and I’m talking from Republicans. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, the first Indian-American governor and a son of immigrants himself, lashed out at the Romney comments on Fox television. Governor Jindal said if Republicans want voters to like them, they have to like the voters first.

Jindal was joined in his condemnation by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a maverick conservative in his own right who told NBC’s Meet the Press that the Republican Party is in a “death spiral” with Hispanic voters because of all the hot rhetoric during the debates in the Republican primary season earlier this year. Graham said when it comes to Hispanic voters, the Republican Party keeps digging itself into a hole, and “if we don’t stop digging, we’re never going to get out of it.”

It is now up to Republicans like Jindal, Graham and others like Florida Senator Marco Rubio to chart a new course for the party moving ahead, well aware that the demographic shifts in recent years point to the ascension of voting groups like Hispanics and Asian-Americans. In fact, Asian-Americans are the fasting growing group in the country and they supported President Obama’s re-election even more strongly than did Hispanics.

Republicans Post-Romney

The thing about Mitt Romney is, he spent a lot of time trying to convince hard-core conservatives he was either really one of them or would or that he would govern in a way they would find acceptable. Well, he did win the nomination and that was a feat in itself, given he was a former moderate governor from the liberal-leaning state of Massachusetts. He had even supported abortion rights at one time, during his 1994 losing Senate race against Ted Kennedy.

But by steering so far to the right in the Republican presidential primaries, Mr. Romney hurt himself to a degree in the general election. His talk of Hispanics “self-deporting” during the primary debates and the generally negative tone from most of the Republican contenders about immigration came back to haunt the party in November. Exit polls showed one in ten U.S. voters this year was Hispanic, a record, and 71 percent of them supported President Obama over Mr. Romney. In addition, 19 percent of voters were younger than 30 and 60 percent of this group swung behind the president.

As for Mr. Romney’s future in the party, I wouldn’t look for a prominent role. As with all losing presidential candidates he will probably go through a period of political self-reflection and thinking about the future. But I just don’t get the feeling he will continue to hunger for the national stage. And it seems there are few Republicans who would be eager for him to try and stay in the spotlight.

That is the norm for failed presidential candidates. Al Gore sought success outside of politics after his close loss in 2000. Bob Dole slipped into retirement after his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1996. Others have found refuge in returning to Congress, like John McCain following his defeat four years ago, and the late former Senator George McGovern, who returned to the Senate in 1972 after his landslide loss to Richard Nixon.

Mr. Nixon, of course, is that rare bird who actually came back to win two presidential elections after having been written off by many people in the early 1960s. Mr. Nixon lost a close race to John Kennedy in 1960 and then a governor’s race in California two years later, vowing to the press that they wouldn’t have “Nixon to kick around anymore.” But he staged a comeback in 1968 and won re-election four years later in one of the great political comeback stories of modern U.S. politics. Of course that is mostly forgotten because of the Watergate scandal, which forced him to become the first U.S. president to resign in August of 1974. It also seems unlikely that in this age, a party will ever re-nominate someone who had lost a presidential election. That used to happen in the 19th and early 20th centuries but it is far less likely today.

The Debate is On

In the wake of the Obama re-election victory, a somewhat predictable debate has broken out among Republicans as to where the party goes now. Some of the pure ideological conservatives are falling back on the old argument that both John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 were moderates, not true conservatives, and that contributed to the Republican defeat. Well, does anybody really think Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain would have been a stronger nominee? Would they have had any more success in broadening the Republican brand beyond the current predominant constituency of older white men?

On the other end of the spectrum are folks like Jindal, Graham and commentator Bill Kristol, who argue it’s time for the Republican Party to take a hard look at why it hasn’t been able to broaden its base, and to make a more concerted effort to win over minority voters, especially Hispanics. They reason that many Hispanics have a Catholic background and should be open to the party’s conservative stand on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. They might also find the party’s views on economic growth and helping small business owners appealing. That will be an evolving debate over the months to come and one worth watching as the party positions itself for the 2014 midterm congressional elections and the next presidential election in 2016.

Spotlight on Christie

Speaking of the 2016 election, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will be one of the Republican names mentioned most over the next few years. Christie’s approval ratings are soaring in the wake of his diligent efforts to respond to Hurricane Sandy, and it’s the kind of attention that can draw raves not just from Republicans, but from independents and Democrats as well.

But just as Christie expands his (political) profile, some Republicans would like to bring him down a peg or two. They are upset over his effusive praise of President Obama’s assistance in the wake of Sandy, whichcame at a critical point in the presidential election campaign. The New York Times reported that Christie was repeatedly put on the defensive by angry Republicans during a recent meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association in Las Vegas.

Christie is one of those rare Republicans with a national profile who can arouse passions from the conservative base of the party and at the same time has the potential to win over independent voters who like his straight-talking demeanor and ability to get things done. The question is whether some of the party elders will be willing to forgive and forget his embrace of Mr. Obama when Republicans gear up for the next round of presidential primaries in less than four years’ time.

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