Obama's 2011: Defiance Sets Tone for '12

By Alexis Simendinger - December 31, 2011

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In the middle of next year’s presidential campaign, the Supreme Court will decide whether the law’s insurance mandate -- the engine inside the contraption -- is constitutional. That decision, likely in June, guarantees a dramatic and important policy event just as voters are weighing their choices for president.

Govern Small When Legislating Big Is Not an Option

The president decided this year that “We Can’t Wait” was a rejoinder of sorts to a season of congressional gridlock.

In a year of divided government, Obama gradually learned that when he could not move legislation through Congress, the Constitution granted him power as the nation’s chief executive. In the modern media age, the public relations benefits are obvious, even if the policy progress is miniscule, or not entirely clear to most Americans. Action, almost any kind, still makes a weakened president appear to be more commanding.

“Wherever we have an opportunity and I have the executive authority to go ahead and get some things done, we're just going to go ahead and do them,” Obama explained three weeks ago.

Governance by inches was not the president’s route in 2009 and 2010. Like presidents before him, especially during crises, Obama preferred transformative and supersized “change.” The president caused a minor stir this month when he stacked his legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in his first two years against those of Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lincoln (in that order). “Just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history,” Obama explained at the end of an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “But, you know, when it comes to the economy, we’ve got a lot more work to do, and we’re gonna keep on it,” he said.

This year, even the smallest job-related endeavor inside a federal agency earned the West Wing’s PR bells and whistles.

When Obama decided last summer to campaign publicly against the Republican-led Congress, the levers of authority at his disposal helped demonstrate that he was breaking with the legislative branch. To argue that government is a beneficial force, the president showcased his administration’s management of valued programs in executive departments and agencies. He turned to regulations in an attempt to pressure Congress to settle differences over pending bills, and used other federal rules as shields to skirt political headaches.

The president touted the executive branch as a model for the rest of the country by making a show of belt-tightening and sacrifice, such as with federal pay freezes. Obama acted in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya this year with powers only a commander-in-chief can wield.

Obama set up boards, appointed staff, moved personnel out of government to his campaign and wrestled with stalled nominations in the Senate that became proxy battles for other public arguments. He bypassed Congress by granting program waivers to states.

And while Obama did not veto a single measure, he issued dozens of veto threats and crafted at least five signing statements telling Congress how he would interpret laws once enacted.

Asked by RCP what lessons and techniques Obama learned in dealing with divided government that he would take with him into 2012, his spokesman said the president would try almost anything to help Americans make it through a tough time.

“The means by which he does that working with a divided government, working with a divided Congress, are less important than results,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “So he’s agnostic on that, I believe, because the focus is helping Americans deal with their everyday problems: their bills and their jobs and their economic security, their health care. That’s what he’s focused on.” 

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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