Better The Devil You Know?

by George Kennedy on September 8, 2011


Better The Devil You Know?

You are better served by keeping the devil you know. That is our best option in the 2012 presidential elections. In the inimitable words of that legendary American, Yogi Berra, “This is deja vu’ all over again.” I did not make this up. According to an anonymous Obama campaign strategist, that will be their campaign strategy going forward. We have been here before so let’s not waste time analyzing how we arrived at this point given the promises candidate Obama made in 2008. Let’s focus on a probable future under President Obama or one of the two likely Republicans:

Perry or Romney. Both scenarios are intriguing, well, frightening is more accurate if either of the current Republican frontrunners ascends to the presidency. The factor instrumental to the legislative success of either party’s candidate will be the makeup of the Congress – not a popular institution with the American public these days.

A recent NBC/Journal poll finds approval of Congress at 13 percent and Republicans in Congress at 28 percent. What we cannot predict at this early juncture is how the voters feel about divided government now. They voted for it in 2010 but will they in 2012?

I am speculating here but a Republican president with a divided Congress has a stronger hand to play than a Democratic president with a divided Congress.


Republicans are less constrained and less concerned about the impact of their extremist views on the country and our standing worldwide. That is a broad statement but accurate nonetheless. Democrats want to govern and are more likely to seek compromises with a Republican in the White House.

Republicans, on the other hand, make no secret of their dislike for the president and I can only imagine their contempt for him will harden during a second term. If they lose seats in the House and do not capture the Senate, we will see the Senate tie itself in knots with Republican filibusters.

Should the president win a second term, he will be bruised badly from one of the meanest and costliest presidential campaigns in living memory. The Republicans smell blood in the water and are circling despite polls attributing our dysfunctional government largely to their unwillingness to work with the president.

This Obama campaign aide said “Obama’s strategists are planning to focus less on his record – which is spotty at best – than on what they regard as the frightening prospect of a Republican Party not only of wrong but medieval thinking.” He went on to say “the strategy will be more accusatory, alarm-filled and defensive than the one used during the uplifting, even joyous campaign of 2008.”

This strategy was ineffective against George W. Bush on two occasions.

…Will it work in 2012?

Policies aside, two factors work against the president: The Electoral College map and the Tea Party. Not to be overlooked is the probable reaction of the independent voters. They have repeatedly expressed their disdain for negative campaign tactics and destructive campaign advertising.

Moreover, Democrats don’t play this game as masterfully as the Republicans. Liberals are spoiling for a fight but can they wage an aggressive campaign against the Republicans and keep their base intact?

For the sake of argument, let’s say the president is successful and is re-elected for a second term. My question is, will he fight as hard to govern in a second term as he undoubtedly will fight to succeed himself? He campaigns well as a progressive, but will he be as credible on the campaign trail a second time around?

The Labor Day speech in Detroit lacked something this time; the rhetoric had the familiar cadence. It was balanced, not overly harsh but it just felt hollow. The best case scenario for a second term would be if the leadership in the House were held by the Democrats and the status quo remained in the Senate.

How likely is that?

The Republicans are as energized – if not more so – than they were to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980.

They practically salivate over the prospect of making Obama a one term president. I attended both national conventions that year and it was obvious – at least to me – Reagan had the most enthusiastic supporters. They had religion! The battle between Carter and Kennedy did weaken Carter, but Carter was already a weakened president. Obama without a challenger is a weakened candidate and I do argue that he faces the uphill slog Carter faced in 1980. This election is still Obama’s to win.

Better the devil we know. Unless we want to endure four more years of stalemated government, we have to make some changes in the composition of the House. If Americans insist again on divided government, but according the Republicans a smaller majority in the House, how would President Obama govern in a second term? No one knows, but if past behavior is any indication, we could be in for a less than stellar second term.

Conservatives, Republicans, and the Tea Party will consider him a “lame duck” on the day after the elections and declare war on his legislative agenda and judicial appointments – especially if a judicial appointment could tip the balance on the Supreme Court. Conservatives will seek to defund regulatory agencies, bottle up all appropriations’ bills in committee, and that is the warm up.

Presidents pay attention to their legacy in a second term, something President Obama’s detractors will seek to shape. They do have to balance the legacy of George W. Bush, labeled by some as the worst president in history.

The president will struggle to boost our weak economy and lower the unemployment rate below 9.1 percent. In foreign policy, Americans want to end our lengthy and costly involvement in Afghanistan. Obama will have to structure a serious “drawdown” there but he will pay a price.

That leads me to my chief concern about a second term for President Obama:

What price would he be willing to pay to secure his legacy?
What concessions will he make to the conservatives to pass his legislation?
Will his legislation represent his priorities or those of the Republicans?

I am assuming in a second term, his priorities will be more closely aligned with those of the American people.

In exchange for his budget, what will be the quid pro quo for the Republicans?

Here is my partial list of priorities Republicans in both houses will insist upon to support any legislation sought by the White House.

  1. More tax cuts for the rich.
  2. Cutting corporate tax rates (or eliminating them) and reducing the top tax rate.
  3. Eliminate capital gains taxes and dividend taxes.
  4. Raise taxes on the middle class and working families.
  5. Drastically reduce or eliminate funding for the FAA, the EPA, the SEC, and the new Consumer Protection Agency. Defund the Department of Education, and weaken “Dodd-Frank” – the Wall Street Reform Law.
  6. Actually increase defense spending to compensate for the cutbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  7. Support a balanced-budget amendment.
  8. Roll back Roe v. Wade

When George W. Bush won his second term by slightly less than three percent, he announced he had “political capital to spend” and he intended to spend it. That was a gutsy move considering his margin of victory.

He did not lack audacity. What would Obama do? Would he govern from the strength of a second term? Or, pursue the art of the possible with the Republicans?

We need to be concerned that he is not a fighter, avoids risk, and would lead again from the rear. I may be wrong and I do fervently hope so. If not, we will need to give him a Congress that does not test his mettle but would prefer to work with him.

Or, will the electorate decide it is time for change and roll the dice?

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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