The President Punts
The Washington Post reports that President Obama is shifting his strategy for dealing with Congressional Republicans, aiming to “articulate for the American electorate his own feelings—an exasperation with an opposition party that backs even the most politically popular elements of his agenda.” The goal, reports the Post, is to win the seventeen House seats needed to restore Democratic control of Congress in 2014, and then to “push forward with a progressive agenda on gun control, immigration, climate change and the economy during his final two years in office.” The night of his reelection, Obama called House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Steve Israel to talk about “how focused he would be on winning a House majority for the Democrats.” Obama’s permanent-campaign organization, Organizing for Action, is already seeking donations to back Democrats running in the House in 2014.
This strategy turns conventional wisdom on its head—normally, a reelected president attempts to get as much done as possible before the midterms. There are two worries that motivate such an approach. First, as his final term approaches its end, Congress has fewer reasons to cooperate with him, as he won’t be around long enough to punish those who get in the way. Second, history suggests he’ll lose seats in Congress at the midterms. As the Post points out, only one president since FDR has managed to make gains in the House at his second midterm election—Bill Clinton in 1998. Clinton, however, had a 65 percent approval rating. Obama’s is fourteen points lower. Yet he appears to believe that the best way to secure his legacy is a big gamble that the copybook headings of American politics no longer apply, that the American people are so frustrated by Republican immobility that they will defy history and give the president’s party a big second-midterm boost.
Needless to say, this approach is morally questionable. The government faces severe problems that demand some form of action, problems that will only worsen if ignored for two years. The Post warns that Obama could even come to “be seen as the kind of partisan politician he once deplored” if he adopts a strategy of continually pinning blame on his opponents while doing little. Americans surely deserve better from their leaders.
It's undeniable that the president is in a tough spot. Quantitative measures of partisanship have shown polarization increasing for sixty years—initiated by a steady Democratic slide to the left that began in the 1940s and amplified by a sharp Republican turn to the right that began in the late 1970s. Yet Obama's shift in tactics still represents a failure of leadership. If his agenda were as popular with ordinary Americans as he seems to believe, he would be able to badger opponents into supporting it. He could, for example, visit the home districts of Congressional opponents to rally support for his programs and make his rivals fear they’ll lose reelection if they don’t play along. He could gain their support via logrolling or carefully selected government projects (i.e. pork). They'd find fighting on harder than giving in.
The fact that tactics like these aren’t working to his satisfaction means either that Obama is bad at the give-and-take of politics or that Obama's ideas don’t have as much support from the broader public as he thinks. In either case, the solution is for the president to scale back or redraw his agenda and do what can be done in the circumstances. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible.