hardline political news and analysis

Month: January, 2014

State of the Union 2014: Obama’s Opportunity

In the midst of those halcyon days between his election as the 44th President in November, 2008 and his inauguration on January 20, 2009, President-elect Barack Obama came up to Capitol Hill to discuss his early legislative goals, including his commitment to constructive collaboration with Republicans in Congress.  I listened to his proposed agenda and strategy and offered a pessimistic prediction.  “Mr. President,” I volunteered, “I know these guys in the House really well.  They hate you. They aren’t going to cooperate.”  The nascent President responded, “You may be right, John, but I’m going to try.” 

A few weeks later, things were definitely leaning more my way than his. Invited to meet with Republican House members on the stimulus bill, now-President Obama arrived as GOP leaders completed an impromptu news conference at which they announced Republicans would refuse to support the stimulus — regardless of what the President said.  Most of these Republicans had been less categorically negative when George W. Bush crafted a stimulus package with Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid in 2012; and the new one, probably unwisely, was more heavily skewed to the tax cuts Republicans love rather than towards the job-creating infrastructure jobs favored by most Democrats. (Republicans weren’t kidding; not one voted for the stimulus bill.) 

In his first White House press conference, Mr. Obama declared, “I’m going to go in there with a spirit of bipartisanship.” And so he did.  Time after time, both he and congressional allies have encountered the solid opposition of House Republicans. Even before the infusion of the nihilist Tea Party contingent of 2010, Republicans voted solidly against the stimulus, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms, and – with a single exception – health care reform.  The record of cooperation has not improved over time. 

As the President prepares to deliver his State of the Union message, one must believe the past five years of stultifying hostility from Republicans has pierced the unwarranted Obama optimism and suggested that a new approach is needed.  Some would argue that the President articulate a lengthy list of initiatives to address  unmet priorities, assuring that various factions within the Congress will reliably  bob up and down in mini-standing ovations.  That approach would make some happy, but it would be counterproductive and self-defeating.

Of course, Republicans (especially in the House) have no intention of passing any of the President’s priorities.  If the past three years are any indication, they will not even hold hearings on them and will instead content themselves to repeal the Affordable Care Act several dozen more times, at least in the House.  Reciting a litany of legislation that is stone cold before arriving at the House hopper would only afford the press the opportunity to regularly report how Congress ignores or defeats the President’s priorities, quantifying his diminished stature.

The President has a unique opportunity on Tuesday night to remind Americans what he stand for and, especially important, how his priorities dovetail with their own while differentiating himself from the obdurate Republican majority.  But it is not enough to contrast the aspirations of the American people from Republican goals: President Obama has to use the State of the Union to send a clear message to Congress and the country, and it isn’t a very complicated one:

I will work with you without surcease, but I will not allow your partisan inaction to injure this country.  Where I can act using the lawful exercise of my Executive Authority as permitted by statute and the Constitution, I will do so if the Congress proves unwilling, or unable, to do its job.  (The unstated last line of that declaration would be, “Try and stop me.”)

Now, as a 38 year creature of the Congress, I am hardly in favor of unrestricted Executive Authority, the kind of Imperial Presidency that helped launch the careers and reforms of the 1970s.  But President Obama is simply running out of time, and he surely now understands that not only will Republicans not cooperate, but that persisting in a futile effort to encourage them behave responsibly damages his own image and authority.  Time to reach for the crown and scepter and not, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi likes to say, to wait for the slowest ship.

Fortunately, there is growing optimism the President is thinking along these lines, albeit cautiously and methodically, as one would expect from Barack Obama.  During the press spray prior to the year’s first Cabinet meeting, he declared his intention to flex his executive powers if Congress proves resistant or indifferent.  He possesses, he noted, a “pen and a phone,” and he pledged to work with interested parties outside Congress to generate support for Executive Orders that bypass the congressional roadblock.

Already the President is moving to demonstrate his willingness to circumvent congressional obstructionists.  His administration has announced Executive action on climate change, education, child care, public-private manufacturing initiatives and college affordability.  Not surprisingly, Republicans are chagrined.  Obama’s alleged buddy, the soon-to-depart Sen. Tom Coburn, grumbles that the President’s actions are “getting perilously close” to warranting impeachment, reported the impeachment, Tulsa World.  Not to worry.

Obama remains wary of presidential over-reach, and that is probably good, just like his reasoned restraint in over-exercising his war-making powers in Syria or Iran.  “Where I can act on my own without Congress,” Obama says,  “I will do so.”  While some well-meaning Democrats are frustrated he will fail to exercise Executive authority as much as they would counsel, he knows that over-reach can be checked by an appropriations amendment his order on a bill he can’t afford to veto.  “There is no shortcut to politics,” he recently told a crowd charged up by a heckler demanding more Executive initiatives.  “There’s no shortcut to democracy. 

With business leaders joining others in frustration with the inability of Republican congressional leaders to manage their Tea Party factions, Obama has genuine possibilities to secure broad support for judicious use of his Executive powers.  A collection of such leaders joined others recently is advocating presidential action to implement the climate change agenda the Administration announced last year. According to the group, the President has nearly 200 opportunities to initiate real action to address climate change under authority provided by existing law.

Congress will huff and puff, of course, but Presidents do have broad authority, often because it was provided by the very same huffers and puffers in Congress who opted to “punt” when drafting legislation and leave delicate implementation details to the Executive agencies.  The loudest squawking typically emanates from those who didn’t support the law in the first place.

So when you watch the SOTU on Tuesday night, don’t expect a long list of presidential priorities presented for Congress’ consideration.  My bet is that the President uses this nationally televised opportunity, in measured Obama fashion, to remind the Congress he can and will act without waiting for the Capitol Hill molasses to defrost. 

President Obama has no choice if he wishes his last three years in office to be productive.  However inimical to his personality, he must demonstrate a willingness to advance what he views as national priorities in spite of congressional inaction of obstructionism; history will grant him little succor for merely blaming Republicans for the next three years.  Obama will have to not only be willing to incur Republican efforts to block his Executive actions and the clucking of the chatter journalists who bemoan his end run around the stalled lawmaking process, but also the inevitable sniping of dissatisfied Democrats who want more than the President can deliver. 

In his recent words and actions, President Obama seems to have come to recognize the unjust hand history has dealt him by saddling him for at least half of his presidency with an uncooperative and obstructive Congress.  History will measure him by how he employs the awesome powers at his command to craft the best record of achievement possible.  The State of the Union is a good time for him to explain his intentions to a public desperate for leadership and accomplishment.



Tribute to a Great Political Leader: George Miller

For my first 30 years on Capitol Hill, I worked for the congressman on whose initial campaign I had volunteered and with whom I came to Washington in 1975, George Miller of California. 

George Miller announced last Monday that his current term in the House, his 20th, would be his last.  Having arrived on Capitol Hill at the age of 29, thinking, as he often said, that “back East meant Reno,” Miller will depart Dean of the California delegation, the 5th most senior Member of the House, and the most accomplished legislator of his generation.

He had a long political pedigree — his dad was a very prominent California state senator and his grandfather a local official.  His formidable physical presence enhanced his questioning of a hostile witness before one of the three committees he chaired. But George never morphed into the dreaded  congressional prima donna. True, he could reduce a witness (or a staff person) to a quivering mass of jelly (he once threw a heavy book at me when I challenged him on an issue), but the tantrum never lasted long, often ending with a grudging hug.

The fanatical loyalty of his long-serving staff is due, in large part, to a conviction that George is one of us, not just “the boss.”  He was not hesitant about exercising his office, but he never completely shed the staff persona he developed working in Sacramento for Majority Leader George Moscone.  He made the office coffee, sorted the mail, respected staff members’ family needs, and maintained a novice staffer’s healthy dose of outrage.

He repaid that loyalty by backing his staff 100%, reliably shouldering the Member’s burden of turning a staffer’s obsession, if reasonable, into public law.   When a staffer came up with a good idea for a bill, George would invariably declare, “Let’s do that!” And whether it took an afternoon or five years, as it sometimes did, Miller stuck with the issue, and usually prevailed, often with strong bipartisan support.   

Many have asked why George never sought a leadership position or ran for higher office.  Such ideas were occasionally entertained.  In 1984, I speculated about a John-Glenn-George Miller ticket (think of the slogan: “In the mood for Glenn-Miller ’84”).  Wisely, he did not encourage that line of thinking.  Others encouraged him to challenge Dick Gephardt for Democratic Leader to provide a more aggressive alternative to Newt Gingrich.  He declined, and Gephardt elevated him to the leadership, both to mine his active intellect and, I suspect, to keep an eye on a potential rival.

George chronically shunned self-promotion for a Senate seat the governorship or Leadership in the House, all of which were encouraged by others.  The incessant travel and heavyweight fundraising was unappealing, and he preferred to devote his time to the issues that fired his blood: children, families, workers, health care, family policy, the environment, a sensible foreign policy.  He aspired for his friends to rise in power, and many did, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and longtime D.C. roommates Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin.

And so decade after decade, George remained in the turbulence of the House, plunging into battles including the minimum wages, enhancing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, expanding early childhood services and reforming oil and gas leasing, battling student loan companies and subsidized irrigators, challenging human rights abuses at home and around the world.  He has been fearless, never flinching from challenging hometown oil companies, deep pocket agribusinesses, sweatshop operators or even South American dictators (one of whom once sent an agent to track Miller in California).

Miller is a congressional workhorse, not a show horse, and a formidable amount of the legislation he authored became law.  His chairmanship of the Education and Labor Committee (2007-2010) is the most productive Committee record in U.S. history, according to the Congressional Research Service, belying the assertion that Congress is an unworkable institution.  (He also chaired Natural Resources and Select Committee on Children he persuaded Speaker Tip O’Neill to create.)

Contrary to the “tax and spend liberal” label which twenty challengers tried to pin on him, George was a pioneer in targeting the deficit and documented the cost effectiveness of early intervention with children — good science and good economics.  He reads the business sections of newspapers first, and his admiration for business discipline prompted him to originate Pay As You Go deficit reduction in 1982, which helped balance the budget in the 1990s before the new GOP majority chucked it out, with disastrous results. 

His long career has produced innumerable memorable moments, and anyone with whom he has served has a favorite. One, which seems emblematic to me, was a late night floor speech against a restrictive Republican floor procedure.  Recognized for a brief speech, George excoriated the majority for promoting “fascism” on the House floor, ignoring the presiding officer who was energetically banging the gavel with increasing vigor as George exceeded his allotted time.  George’s voice escalated in tandem with the acting Speaker’s incessant hammering until the top of the gavel broke off and somersaulted into the well of the House. With a sly grin, George mischievously ended his extended speech with the standard caveat, “I yield back the balance of my time.”  

Thirty years ago, George’s mentor Rep. Phil Burton died suddenly and as we drafted his remarks for the memorial service, George declared, Phil always liked to say his ‘balls roared with injustice.’  I want to include that in my remarks.”    

“No,” I demurred. “That isn’t appropriate for a funeral.” Unhappily, George relented and the words went unspoken.  But as I consider summarizing his outstanding career, the words not only ring true but singularly appropriate to George Miller himself.  Indeed, his balls do “roar with injustice,” which is why there is little doubt that George continue to promote solutions that improve the lives of millions of Americans who will never know his name or how effectively he has served his nation.