Obama Speech Will Pave Way for Dems in '16
President Obama entered office with a dramatic economic rescue and overhaul of the nation’s health care system as his opening acts. Now that he’s preparing to exit the White House in a year, he speaks approvingly of incremental rather than transformational progress.
It is a consolation prize clutched by all presidents who vowed to change Washington, only to worry that Washington changed them.
Gone in Obama’s eighth year are sweeping legislative ambitions. In their place: political storytelling aimed at a hoped-for Democratic successor and a Democratic Senate in 2017; maneuvers to protect seven years of governance; and lofty rhetorical riffs for the history books.
There is a reason White House aides insist Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday at 9 p.m. will be thematic, optimistic, and pitched to future generations. Election years at the end of two terms rarely produce major legislation, and often find presidents circling the globe aboard Air Force One, saluting countries and continents that offer their attentions. (Obama is thus far expected to visit Germany, Japan, China, South America, and perhaps Vietnam and Cuba.)
The president is immersed in the 2016 presidential contest and appalled by Republican candidates’ downbeat assessments of the country and the inflammatory rhetoric lobbed by the opposition party. Obama may not be on any ballot, but he is determined to be a presence in the race to help boost Hillary Clinton into the Oval Office. He has said he will campaign hard for Democrats who want his help.
“One of the things that I will be arguing over the course of the next year is to make sure that Democrats run an issue-based campaign on the things that we believe in and care about, and I think we've got a great track record of real progress on a whole range of fronts,” he told NPR during an interview last month. “If we make those arguments clearly and forthrightly and aren't defensive, then I'm actually confident we will do just fine.”
The president’s speech on Tuesday is the beginning of that final campaign. It’s a giant stage on which he can appeal to an anxious, divided electorate, one that’s unsure if Washington has done too much over seven years, or not enough. He can argue he is not a king, but also not a pushover.
In Congress, the president will seek bipartisan help this year to pass criminal justice reforms, and to ratify the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. And he will ask the Senate to confirm his nominees, both to run departments and to plug vacancies in key positions.
It is an irony in Washington that Republicans last year pushed to give Obama the executive authority to negotiate the major Pacific Rim trade pact, after forfeiting Congress’s own power to amend it. Yet, in contrast, conservative opponents contested Obama’s executive clout under the Affordable Care Act and immigration laws by taking him to court.
Obama came late in his presidency to exercising that clout as a rebuke to the Republican-led Congress, but in the short run, it sparked controversy and mistrust.
“Obama's pattern of unilateral action is consistent with what most presidents have done: he has been energetic in his use of executive power, but not in any way that goes beyond his predecessors,” Kenneth Mayer, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in an email. Mayer has written extensively about presidents’ use of executive authority, and he views descriptions of “tyranny” aimed at Obama as symptomatic of more mundane political disagreements.
“This is part of a long, long, historical pattern of presidential initiative, occasional congressional pushback, judicial involvement and incrementalism,” Mayer added. “There isn't any reason to think the next president will behave any differently.”
Presidential comparisons of executive orders (one type of presidential muscle) bear Mayer out. Obama in his second term has averaged 27 executive orders a year. George W. Bush, who was assailed for his post-9/11 unilateral decision-making, averaged 30 executive orders a year during his second term. Bill Clinton signed an average of 41 a year during a final term in which Congress impeached and acquitted him. And by the time Ronald Reagan prepared to return to California and hand the reins to George H.W. Bush, he averaged 42 executive orders per year.
Acting without Congress – via regulation, waived enforcement, statutory interpretation, executive order or international negotiation – animates presidential candidates in both parties. Would-be chief executives who tell voters they have special skills to bring Congress and the White House together also promise supporters they’re decisive leaders who just “get things done.”
Clinton tells her backers she will go further than Obama in using executive power, and at the same time boasts she can create “a warm purple space” for bipartisan cooperation with lawmakers. Donald Trump says he’s opposed to Obama’s unilateral initiatives, even as he vows as president to bar Muslims from entering the country, erase gun-free school zones required under federal law, and wall off the entire United States border from Mexico (using Mexican funding). He does not describe seeking assent from Congress.
Beginning in 2012, Obama pledged to act where Congress refused to do so. By 2014, his slogan became a pen and a phone – tools to work around Republicans who controlled the House and walloped Democrats by winning control of the Senate. In his final State of the Union speech, Obama will suggest that Republicans favor gridlock more than progress; inequality vs. a level playing field; intolerance rather than justice; and wars instead of a war of ideas.
It is not exactly a new presentation. And it has not helped Democratic candidates (other than Obama) in elections since 2008. In the last seven years, Democrats lost 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats, 12 governor’s offices and more than 900 state legislative seats, plus control of 30 state legislative chambers. And ominously for the president’s party, pollsters say Democrats are shrinking in registered numbers and in enthusiasm heading toward Election Day in November.
In the president’s analysis, his policies are not at fault. He often blames the news media, although Obama delights in social media and nontraditional channels to reach audiences, and he’s given nearly 1,000 media interviews to date, according to presidency scholar Martha Joynt Kumar, who has published two books about White House communications.
The president has pointed his finger at Congress -- because he cannot shutter the prison at Guantanamo Bay, for example. But while lawmakers constrained Obama’s options legislatively, it was foot-dragging and opposition deep within the Pentagon that has thwarted Obama’s ambition to close Gitmo, according to a detailed account reported last month by Reuters. Resistance simmered within the executive branch, not just on Capitol Hill.
Obama also laments Washington’s culture of special interest politics, even as he prepares a speech Tuesday designed to stoke those fires. The president said this month that he’s become a single-issue voter: If Democratic candidates don’t support gun control, they won’t get his help. And there are other issues around which Obama has drawn stark red lines: climate change, Planned Parenthood, Medicaid expansion, union rights, LGBT rights, paid family leave, child care, Wall Street regulation, a pathway to citizenship, a hike in the federal minimum wage.
One of the takeaways out of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Obama said, was how decentralized real power has become, and what that means for a president.
“A lot of the work is not just identifying the right policy but now constantly building these ever shifting coalitions to be able to actually implement and execute and get it done,” he told GQ magazine in November.
Obama has governed for seven years beyond that perilous period. He concedes he has not conquered Washington’s endless factions and forces that exaggerate rifts, wear blinders and dig in.
Some detractors will point to Tuesday’s speech and argue he didn’t try.