While both are Democrats and Harvard Law graduates, Jim Cooper and Barack Obama don’t share many similarities.
Cooper is a fiscally conservative congressman representing Nashville and Obama, by Cooper’s own admission, has “sterling liberal credentials” hailing from Chicago, serving as Illinois senator and heading the Democratic ticket.
Stylistically, Obama packs arenas with his soaring oratory, inspiring millions. Conversely, Cooper employs a quick wit while training his spectacles on line items in the federal budget in his ongoing quest to trim wasteful spending.
Policy-wise, the gulf between the two is almost as wide, especially on fiscal issues.
For example, unlike Obama, Cooper thinks the likely Democratic presidential nominee’s Social Security plan is “way too specific” and “way too premature,” his trade policies too “protectionist” and Obama’s opposition to expanded offshore drilling “mistaken.”
Yet, for all of their differences, the conservative fiscal hawk Cooper thinks a President Obama is the only one who could fix Washington and its spendthrift ways.
“Opposites attract in politics, like only Nixon could go to China,” Cooper said this week, recalling the strident anti-communist president’s trip to China. “Well probably only a liberal and an African-American could reform runaway entitlement program spending. Now there’s no guarantee of that, but I don’t see a Republican doing it.”
Cooper’s fiscal reputation and fervent support for Obama has even spurred some speculation that Cooper would be considered for a position in an Obama administration, possibly as budget director — something Cooper for now is downplaying.
Cooper was one of Obama’s earliest Congressional supporters, backing him in May 2007 when Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) appeared to be the Democrats’ inevitable presidential pick.
Cooper said his first extended discussion with Obama occurred in January 2007, which left him with a “very positive impression.” He wasn’t sure, however, if Obama could raise money or run an efficient campaign.
But by May, he was convinced. His choice was aided, as Cooper acknowledges, through what he knew of Hillary Clinton. In the 1990s, Clinton and Cooper’s relationship ran aground over competing health care reform plans in the early days of her husband’s administration.
“Part of that was (Obama’s) own intelligence and ability but part of it was also my familiarity with Hillary Clinton,” Cooper said of his Obama endorsement. “The combination convinced me that Barack was by far the best choice for the party.”
In June 2007, Cooper organized a Nashville fund-raiser for Obama, one of the few times the Illinois senator has trekked to Tennessee. On the flight back, Cooper had time alone with Obama where he saw that Obama was “as intelligent as Bill Clinton is” but “much more disciplined.”
On Capitol Hill, Cooper is one of the most disciplined — and conservative Democrats — when it comes to fiscal issues. He’s a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats.
Fiscal issues are where Cooper parts ways with Obama on policies ranging from oil exploration to the Bush tax cuts and Social Security.
Whether a President Obama would need Cooper and other Blue Dog Democrats’ support depends on the size of the Democrats’ majority in Congress, said Nathan Gonzales, the political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter in Washington, D.C.
“If they have a sizeable advantage then that would allow Democrats to push their legislative agenda and allow some moderate members to vote against legislation and so in effect still get their legislation out there,” Gonzales said. “If their majority is more narrow, then Obama and Nancy Pelosi are going to need those Blue Dogs on votes to get the legislation through.”
As president, Obama would repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans.
Obama also has backed increasing the capital gains tax on investments from its current 15 percent to as high as 28 percent, the level during Clinton’s administration.
In addition, addressing Social Security’s solvency, Obama would raise the income cap for the retirement program’s payroll tax, placing a new levy on annual incomes higher than $250,000. Currently, income taxable for Social Security is capped at $102,000.
While Obama espouses these policies, Cooper is against them all, saying that he’s not supportive of tax increases until wasteful spending is curbed.
“I wouldn’t do it if I were he, but I’m not the Democratic nominee,” Cooper said. “I think in general we need to restore faith in government. The best way to do that is to show them you’re serious about cutting out the waste because nobody that I meet wants to pay more taxes, rich or poor, and they all are suspicious of government, often with good reason.”
Obama has said he would work to halt wasteful spending. On taxes, Obama also favors eliminating income taxes for seniors earning $50,000 or less and cutting taxes for the middle class.
Besides differing on taxes, Cooper splits with Obama on some energy issues. The Nashville Congressman favors expanded offshore drilling for oil, which Obama opposes and Republican nominee John McCain recently changed positions to embrace. Cooper is also against a windfall profits tax on big oil, which Obama favors.
On the pressing issue of trade, Cooper says Obama’s positions are too “protectionist.” He believes renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement — as Obama backs — would be a “mistake” and argues the Colombia free trade agreement needs to be inked because it makes “no sense” for Colombia to have free access to American markets but not vice-versa.
Cooper thinks some of Obama’s positions reflect a senator’s mindset and not a president’s.
“America is a marvelously diverse country, and Illinois is a fine state, but it’s not America,” Cooper said. “So at some point before he’s sworn in as president, he needs to think like a president and not a senator and that’s one reason you’ve seen so few senators ever elected president.”
Obama the change candidate
Despite these differences, Cooper thinks Obama is the man to change a Washington and curb the influence of special interests who fervently protect spending programs benefiting them in the federal budget.
The two main entitlement programs Cooper often references — Medicare and Social Security — need reform, he says, and Obama’s “liberal credentials” are what is needed to get the job done.
“I’m pretty darn conservative,” Cooper said. “But that’s why moderates and conservatives like me can enthusiastically support Barack.”
Staying where he is
Cooper is enthusiastically backing Obama and would lend his administration a conservative fiscal voice, but the Nashville Democrat who once wanted to be in the U.S. Senate says he’s lost his ambition.
He’s not interested in serving as a President Obama’s budget director, saying “virtually” all special interests would oppose him because “I’d cut too much.”
Cooper’s staying in the House, figuring a President Obama would need him there.
“I tell you he needs a lot of help here,” Cooper said. “We have to have a balanced voice in Congress so it’s not just all liberals all the time.”
That would put Cooper and Obama on opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, a variance the two markedly different Democrats are accustomed to.