The national political environment is more than broken—it’s toxic. The major political parties and their leaders don’t trust each other. They don’t enjoy the kind of collegial relationship that, say, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill had with former House Minority Leader Robert Michel, nor the kind of mutual respect O’Neill had with President Ronald Reagan. Without trust, it’s very difficult to come up with bipartisan legislation.
Today, with the minority party using every legislative tool and trick to obstruct or derail the passage of any significant legislation because they think that will help them win the midterm elections, Democrats have been forced to go it alone on some key issues like the economy and health care. In this toxic environment, it’s extremely difficult to pass the legislation needed to address the growing challenges facing our country.
A good example is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the stimulus bill. Democrats yielded when Republicans insisted that billions of dollars be set aside for tax cuts. Yet only a handful of Republicans managed to support the stimulus bill. Why? Because minutes before President Barack Obama arrived on Capitol Hill to solidify GOP support, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor announced that no Republican would support the bill. This was President Obama’s first outreach to Congress, and he was greeted not with a platform to review but an iron fist.
It’s tough when you have one party—with a diverse caucus representing conservative, liberal and moderate lawmakers—at least trying to get the other side—primarily composed of conservatives—to come to the table when they have already made a political calculation that it’s better to sit on the sideline, complaining and whining, rather than negotiate and make the tough decisions needed to help the nation.
Voters are justifiably frustrated, and their growing impatience with the status quo is being driven by their concern for their economic viability and security. They’re not concerned about the political security of one party or focused on the minutia of Capitol Hill. They’re too worried about the security of their next paycheck, the viability of making their next mortgage or rent payment and the rising cost of health care and credit card bills.
Meanwhile, there’s no question that the energy right now is with conservatives concerned about federal spending. Angry with Democrats and Republicans alike, they woke up a year ago and decided it was time to stop whining and start organizing. Though the Republican base is energized, their anger will not solve the enormous problems facing this country.
The country needs leadership.
We need both parties to come up with bipartisan legislation based on common-sense solutions that will move the country forward at a time when many people believe we’re still in a recession. With GDP up and productivity up, we might be out of a recession on paper, but what’s on paper is not the everyday reality in the ordinary lives of our fellow citizens.
Most Americans—if you look at the polls and go by the polls—want change. They want change in the economy. They want it to get better. There’s been a small uptick in the number of Americans who believe that things are getting better, but the vast majority of Americans believe that the country is still off track. And until they become comfortable with the kind of change or the kind of progress that is being made—whether it’s in the economy or in other major national issues like health care and education—they would like to see results.
And they’re afraid of committing the government to spending more until they get a good sense of what has been spent and how well we’re doing. This is a very difficult thing to explain because the easy answer is to exploit the fears of those who believe that nothing has been accomplished. The far more difficult thing is to inspire hope in those who do believe that things can change, but they can only change if people really feel that the government and those leaders are acting on their behalf and not on the behalf of special interests.
So it’s a very difficult time to govern when most people are suspicious or, worse, deeply cynical, about whether government can create the kind of change that they believe needs to happen.
This political environment is tough. It’s unpredictable, it’s volatile, and it’s quite dangerous because it goes to the core of who we are as a country. If the majority cannot govern simply because the minority believes that the changes they’re making might benefit the majority politically, then we’re in a very difficult period. When everything becomes a political test—whether it’s national security, economic security, health care security—we’re in a very difficult period indeed.
It takes leadership. It takes a coach to build a winning team. America needs a can-do attitude right now.
It requires President Obama to work as hard as possible to bring people together even when some of those people want him to fail.
I’m still an optimist. Despite all of the back and forth—the hyper-partisanship, the distrust of government, the loss of appetite for people to get along—I still believe that we will find the leaders that we can believe in, that we will be able to overcome all of these issues, all of these problems. But it will require a different set of leaders, and it will require people believing that the president of the United States is truly that person whose sole responsibility is to bring people together to solve problems.
Donna Brazile is a university professor, author, columnist and the Democratic National Committee’s vice chair of voter registration and participation. The author of the best-selling book Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics, she can be seen as a political contributor on CNN and ABC’s “This Week” on Sundays.