January 13, 2016
Election Year Barack Obama strode to the rostrum in the House chamber and continued his campaign for re-election. He stood in front of Speaker Paul Ryan who is also campaigning this presidential season.
This isn’t normal. All exiting presidents would prefer to have their successor come from the same party. They are not usually as invested as Obama, nor are they often so much more effective in election mode.
Speakers usually have an agenda, but they tend to avoid inserting themselves into an election cycle to the extent Ryan hopes to. Though he was silent tonight, as per custom, he will not fail to respond.
Watching Obama and Ryan begin their official 2016 face off makes me think about what might have been in 2012. After all, had he opted in to the race, Ryan might well have found himself heading the ticket rather than following in Mitt Romney’s wake.
The 2012 fall campaign was reasonably close and competitive, but not memorable. It’s not destined to go down as one of those elections we think about every four years, or any four years.
Does anyone happen to remember what the main issues were? If so, please refresh my memory.
Romney ran as a generic Republican and Obama ground out a win by getting his coalition to the polls, absent the enthusiasm of 2008.
Any Ryan agenda was subsumed by the top of the ticket, like usual. Romney said the recovery was too weak and he would do better. Obama said he’d inherited a car wreck from Bush and we shouldn’t give the GOP another set of keys.
Both had solid logic, neither had an inspirational message or map for the future.
Though Obama’s SOTU isn’t likely to go down in the annals of the most memorable speeches given before Congress, along with FDR’s “day which will live in infamy” or LBJ saying “and we shall overcome,” or Reagan’s address after recovering from being shot, it was the best he’s sounded in a long time.
It isn’t 2008, we’ve heard the rhetorical tricks more than twice and 45-47% of the country will disapprove of anything he says, but he was more hopeful and less afraid to talk about America being powerful than usual.
Combined with Ryan’s recent efforts to build the foundation for an inclusive and thoughtful GOP, something noted by Obama when he referenced Ryan’s interest in dealing with poverty, the campaign between these two standard bearers is off to a promising start.
Perhaps the respective Democrat and Republican leaders are giving us the true contest of ideas we missed in 2012. With Ryan running the show this time and Obama pulling out all the stops in his third race, we might have an epic campaign.
What? You say these guys aren’t the presidential candidates? They aren’t even running? Are you positive?
But Obama clearly sounds like he’s running for a third term, the first since FDR. Ryan is acting like a parliamentary opposition leader, setting the agenda.
Oh yeah. It’s not legal to hold a third term and we don’t have a parliamentary system.
What are these guys up to? It’s very simple. They don’t trust the actual candidates. In two ways. First, they aren’t willing to count on them to win the election without help. Second, to have a coherent platform in line with the principles they’ve fought for.
Obama had three options. One didn’t run. The second he doesn’t trust. The third must seem wildly implausible to him.
It’s a very tough needle to thread. Entrusting his legacy to Larry David is unlikely, even if he did seemingly enjoy his recent car trip with Jerry Seinfeld.
I’ll spare you the explanation of why Hillary is a suboptimal vessel for Obama Act Three.
He’s probably wishing Biden had entered and wondering how to change the rules to get him on enough primary ballots, but that ship has left the harbor and is part way across the ocean.
Bernie’s improved poll numbers have heightened speculation about Al Gore and John Kerry. Yeah right. Among all the options listed, Sanders is the only one who hasn’t lost a presidential race.
And Obama doesn’t even have to worry about Trump on his side. That’s Ryan’s problem. Along with Ted Cruz, who is the very antithesis of a happy warrior. No Jack Kemp disciple is going to enjoy the thought of Cruz.
Either he runs poorly, cutting the House majority and perhaps giving back the Senate, or he wins, and Ryan has to deal with President Cruz.
What about Marco? As I’ve suggested before, Ryan and Rubio have intertwined destinies, but it’s way premature to assume Rubio is getting the nomination. He’s in decent shape, but few think it’s even a 50/50 proposition right now.
I’m assuming Ryan was involved in the decision to have South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley give the official GOP response. She most certainly sang from the Ryan hymnal, pushing back against Obama, but also against negative Republican forces. She was constructing a very big tent.
Should Ryan get his way on the immediate future of the party, she’d make an excellent VP choice. Haley passed her audition with flying colors, doing much better than Bobby Jindal or Rubio when given the same opportunity.
Both Obama and Ryan are in uncharted waters as they seek to have more influence than usual and make up for a lackluster 2012 campaign of ideas.
Given their respective strategic aims, it may well serve both their interests to reach agreement on as much as possible over the next few months.
They probably both strongly feel the country is with them, assuming they get their message out. For Obama it’s a chance to remind Americans he accomplished something and should get a virtual third term.
For Ryan, it’s a chance to show very skeptical Republicans and Independents it’s possible to forward and implement a conservative agenda by being constructive.
In 1996, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were able to get things done in an election year because they both thought Bob Dole would lose to Clinton anyway, so why not.
In this case, they may each think this will help them win. It may also be that Obama trusts Ryan more than Hillary, and Ryan trusts Obama more than Cruz or Trump.
However you slice it, this is one more unusual feature of 2016. Candidates beware: you have a couple backseat drivers joining you for the ride.