Way back in 2008, as he campaigned for the presidency, Barack Obama promised that he would “change the culture in Washington (DC) (and)… the way of doing business’ there. (1) And what exactly did the junior senator from Illinois have in mind? Given the candidate’s intellectual bent and the analytic way he thinks, we can imagine that he saw making policy and legislating as a process where high-minded ideas are debated from principled positions, and where conciliation and compromise lead to the best if not a perfect result. This was audacious, idealistic and most certainly naive; the latter because in our nation’s capital, there has been a longstanding and quite different way of getting things done. Specifically, DC is, above all else, a town of deal-making and that applies to what goes on both in and out of government (2). You do not alter such a culture overnight, if at all.
No sooner had he entered office than Obama announced the end of “earmarks” (3), the “currency” that is used in Congress to influence how senators and representatives vote on a given issue. Not long after, work on Obamacare began. Both were “transformational”; the former a distinct departure from established practice, while the latter sought to provide affordable healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans.
The foregoing are just two examples of how Obama sought to make good on the promise cited earlier. That he was able to “deliver” was surely a product of his having Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress. But, he was opposed every step of the way by an intransigent Republican Party whose members in the Senate set out on a pace to break the record for filibustering. The president’s lofty idealism was getting undercut by pure down-and-dirty politics. This deteriorating state of affairs got worse as a result of the 2010 midterm election that handed majority control in the House over to the GOP.
Faced with this new reality, Obama, whether enthusiastically or not, tried to be a deal-maker. Perhaps the most obvious example of this can be found in his offer to Speaker Boehner of a “grand bargain” on the federal budget in the form of $10 in spending cuts in exchange for just a $1 increase in taxes. This arrangement was rejected, not only by Congressional Republicans, but also by every conservative who was seeking the GOP’s presidential nomination for the 2012 election.
It may have been that the rejection of the 10 : 1 deal became the tipping point when Obama decided that to get anything done, he would have to use what constitutional authority he had to create policy by means of Executive Orders. His use of that prerogative increased and with it came cries from the right that he was acting like a “king not a president”. (4)
The results of the 2014 midterm election skewed the balance of power in DC most decidedly in Republicans’ favor. The GOP came away with control of the Senate and an even greater majority in the House. Similar circumstances in the past typically led to some degree of rapprochement between the president and the Congress. That hasn’t happened yet. Quite to the contrary, Obama is today (11-20-14) prepared to issue an Executive Order that will temporarily at least, improve the functioning of our immigration system. That he has been moved to act unilaterally was covered in a recent blog posted at this site (see Obama vs. Boehner: “Battleground Immigration”) and need not be reiterated here.
The president’s move on immigration may be the first neon indicator that he intends to break from history and use his last two years in office to accomplish what he can; acting pretty much on his own. Or, it may be the equivalent of a “last hurrah” were he to recede into “lame duck” status, roll over and allow those GOP Congressional majorities to generally have their own way. The bet here is that he will continue to issue Executive Orders and oppose Republican initiatives with either counter-proposals or when they are rejected, to make frequent use of his veto power.
We may be in for two more years of gridlock.
1. When Former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Obama in 2008, he said that he had a chance to be a “transformational president”.
2. To obtain the necessary votes to pass Obamacare in the Senate, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid cut deals with two Democrat senators; Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. The former arrangement got labeled the Cornhusker Kickback”; the latter the “Louisiana Purchase”. Outside of official DC, the administration of GW Bush was found to have granted special access to New York Times reporter Judith Miller in exchange for her vigorous promotion of the invasion of Iraq.
3. Think of “earmarks” as asterisks in a budget; each one signaling that part of expenditures were to be set aside for a particular state or congressional district. Earmarks is the polite synonym for “pork”.
4. What conservatives view as Obama’s excessive use of Executive power became the basis for Speaker Boehner’s lawsuit seeking to rein in same. See “Impeachment Lite” posted at this site some months ago. To date, two law firms have refused to represent the Speaker and file the action. What is more, legal scholars, including members of the arch-conservative Federalist Society, have at least tentatively concluded that Obama has not exceeded his authority under the Constitution and that therefore, Boehner’s pleading is without merit.