Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Two Governments in Washington

The President’s State of the Union address and Speaker Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress underscore an entirely new level of dysfunctionality in Washington. We now have two distinct governments in Washington, each with its separate elections, constituencies and agendas.

The White House and Congress operate on different political planes. The White House dominates a presidential electorate, the Republican Congress is mostly a product of the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections. For Democrats, their base is concentrated in large cities, especially on the two coasts, and in college campuses and communities of color. And Republicans win much of the broad interior, more rural areas and the Anglo population, especially among the white and blue collar working class. Democrats focus on such issues as global warming and income equality, and Republicans focus on energy independence and economic growth. They are at odds on international policy, such as negotiations with Iran.

President Obama offered no recognition of the devastating loss his party suffered in 2014--from state legislatures to the U.S. Senate, culminating in a blow to the Democratic Party not seen since 1928 pre-Roosevelt levels of power. Obama does not believe they were his losses. In fact, the White House believes Democrats would have been better served in last fall’s campaigns to have embraced Obama and his policies, such as the Affordable Care Act. Tellingly, he joked near the end of the speech that he has won two national elections (running on his issues and supported by more than half the electorate).

It was difficult to find any interest in passing legislation in Obama’s tone or substance. His speech was essentially addressed to his core constituents and those establishment Democratic officeholders running 2016. Any of the greater public who wanted relief from the gridlock were provided some bromides toward the end of the speech but little recognition of the problem or strategy to address it.

The Speaker’s invitation to Netanyahu highlights that Congress and the President both now have their own foreign and domestic policies. Congress’ first legislation will be the Keystone XL Pipeline, which Obama has already promised to veto.

Both sides know that the basic functions of government need to continue or the public gets very hostile, but the existence of two very separate governments will likely continue until the public concern about dysfunction reaches crisis proportions.

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