State of the Union 2014: Obama’s Opportunity

by John Lawrence

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.