To judge from his surly demeanor and defiant words at his press conference on Monday, Barack Obama begins his second term with a strategy to defeat and humiliate Republicans rather than a strategy to govern.
His point blank refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling was clearly designed to make the House Republicans look bad.
But Obama knows very well that negotiations usually accompany legislation to increase the government’s debt limit. As Gordon Gray of the conservative American Action Network points out, most of the 17 increases in the debt ceiling over the last 20 years have been part of broader measures.
Working out what will be in those measures is a matter for negotiation between the legislative and executive branches. That’s because the Constitution gives Congress the power to incur debt and the president the power to veto.
Obama supporters like to portray Republican attempts to negotiate as hostage-taking or extortion. But those are violent crimes. Negotiations — discussions attempting to reach agreement among those who differ — are peaceful acts.
What we do know, from Bob Woodward’s “The Price of Politics,” is that Obama is not very good at negotiating. He apparently can’t stomach listening to views he does not share.
Perhaps that is to be expected of one who has chosen all his adult life to live in university communities and who made his way upward in the one-party politics of Chicago. Thus on the fiscal cliff he left the unpleasant business of listening to others’ views and reaching agreement to Joe Biden.
Obama has laid down another marker in his puzzling nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense.
As the Washington Post editorial writers pointed out, Hagel — though a nominal Republican — has stood way to the left of Obama on whether a military option to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program is feasible.
Obama has said repeatedly that that option, however risky and unpalatable, is on the table. Hagel has said it shouldn’t be.
It’s not at all clear that Hagel has the experience and temperament to head the Pentagon. His vocal defenders tend to concentrate on attacking his detractors rather than make the affirmative case for his qualifications.
Hagel seems likely to be confirmed given his endorsement by Sen. Charles Schumer yesterday. But it’s interesting that no Republican senators have spoken up for him and that liberal Democratic senators like Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin have declined to do so.
As defense secretary, Hagel seems likely to cut military personnel and capabilities. There’s undoubtedly some detritus that can be swept away. But his nomination seems less aimed at managing the military than tormenting the Republicans.
Then there is gun control. Some recent media polls show majority support for further restrictions on guns. If you phrase the question the right way, you tend to get that kind of response, especially after a horrifying crime like Newtown.
But new restrictions are unlikely to have any significant practical effect. The ban on assault weapons — a category defined mostly by cosmetics — certainly had none in the 10 years it was in effect.
The fact is that we have many more guns and many fewer murders than we did 20 years ago. Allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons, as most states do, has not resulted in the street shootouts some predicted.
Strict state gun control laws did not stop the carnage in Newtown or the frequent killings on the streets of Chicago. The push for gun control is more a symbolic gesture than a serious attempt at governing.
Something better can be said about Obama’s call for immigration law changes. The need for some change is clear.
That was also true in Obama’s first two years, when he did nothing to advance legislation on the subject when Democrats had a solid majorities in Congress.
The question is whether Obama wants legislation or to stick it to the opposition. Many Republicans, like Sen. Marco Rubio, are ready to support legalization of those brought here as children but not immediate legalization for all 11 million illegals.
Negotiations and compromises will be needed to get a bill through Congress. A president interested in governing would not insist on getting his way 100 percent. Whether Obama is such a president is far from clear.