Can Obama circumvent Washington?

January 31, 2014

Washington is broken,” Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president, said in September 2008. “My whole campaign has been premised from the start on the idea that we have to fundamentally change how Washington works.”

There are three ways that Washington works: compromise, crisis and clout. Compromise is the way Washington is supposed to work. It’s practically mandated by the Constitution, with its complex system of checks and balances and separation of powers. It’s the way the U.S. government has worked for more than 200 years.

But it’s not working very well any more. Party positions have dug in. Deal-making is harder now that there are fewer moderates in Congress. It has taken more than two years for the House of Representatives to pass a farm bill, and it’s already under attack by both conservatives and liberals.

Congress did pass a budget deal last month, and there’s a reasonable chance that some version of immigration reform will go through this year. In both cases, the driving force is fear. Congressional Republicans are desperate to avoid another government shutdown over the budget. They are also determined to avoid a repeat of 2012, when minority voters, angry over Republican opposition to immigration reform, voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

Things can get done quickly in Washington if there’s a sense of crisis in the country. It took only a few weeks after September 11 to pass the Patriot Act, for example. The financial crisis of 2008 drove a whole slew of legislation — from the government bailouts under President George W. Bush to Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, remarked early in the first term. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

But a crisis cannot be declared. It has to be real. Voters have to feel an overwhelming sense of urgency. That’s why politicians are always hyping issues. They declare an education crisis or an environmental crisis or an energy crisis. Or they try to rally the country to fight a “war” on something — a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on terror. If the public urgency is not authentic, however, opponents won’t have much trouble blocking government action.

Recently, Democrats have been talking about a growing crisis over income inequality. “Those at the top have never done better,” the president said Tuesday night. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened.”

The income gap between rich and poor in the United States is the widest of 10 advanced countries, according to the Pew Research Center. But fewer than half of Americans think it’s a big problem. That’s the lowest level of concern of any country except Australia, which has a much smaller income gap.

Obama is counting on the inequality issue to get two significant pieces of legislation through Congress this year: an increase in the federal minimum wage, which was last raised to $7.25 an hour in 2009, and an extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed.

“This Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people,” Obama told Congress.

The measures are far from certain to pass. Which is why the president decided to resort to Option 3 — clout. The White House calls it a “pen and phone” strategy. Use the pen to sign executive orders. Use the phone to persuade private operations to adopt policies that are in the public interest. No congressional action required.

During the State of the Union, the president singled out the owner of a Minneapolis pizza parlor who just gave his employees a raise. “Tonight,” Obama said, “I ask more of America’s business leaders to follow John’s lead and do what you can to raise your employees’ wages.”

Then Obama announced he was signing an executive order requiring future federal contractors to pay workers a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. He also said he would sign executive orders mandating higher fuel efficiency standards for trucks, more investment in classroom technology and better federal job training programs.

“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I am going to do,” the president told Congress.

Republican lawmakers are calling it a power grab, but who cares? The public’s opinion of Congress could hardly be worse. The problem is that executive orders are usually narrow and impermanent. “How many people, Mr. President,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) asked, “will this executive action [requiring future federal contractors to pay at least the minimum wage] actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.”

An executive order can always be rescinded by the next president.  It’s much harder to repeal legislation — as Republicans are discovering with Obamacare.

Clout is an assertive approach to governing that usually produces modest results. Usually, but not always. The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, using his wartime authority as commander in chief. But it still did not have the force of law. In order to abolish slavery permanently, Lincoln had to maneuver Congress into passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution two years later. (It’s all in the movie Lincoln.)

Obama’s speech was an acknowledgment of failure. He has not been able to “change how Washington works.” So he has to circumvent the process.

Obama is not alone. The last four presidents — two Democrats and two Republicans — all tried to change Washington. They all failed.

The problem isn’t Obama. The problem is the problem.


PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama sits with Speaker of the House John Boehner during a memorial service for former Speaker Tom Foley in the Capitol in Washington October 29, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (INSERT): Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the title role, shown in a scene from the film ”Lincoln” in this publicity photo from January 10, 2013. Reuters/Walt Disney Pictures/20th Century Fox/Handout


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Since Obama is in a “Siamese twin” relation with “Washington”, it would require major surgery with the probability of a positive outcome extremely remote.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

“Things can get done quickly in Washington if there’s a sense of crisis in the country. It took only a few weeks after September 11 to pass the Patriot Act, for example.”

If the Patriot Act is an example of what can be done with bipartisan cooperation, give me gridlock any day!

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

It wouldn’t be considered a “power grab” if Congress would agree to do something for American citizens who don’t have their own personal lobbyists with a check to fund their next election campaign.

How dare the President do something for the disadvantaged, for the struggling American! What an evil man! How unchristian! How un-American! (sarcasm).

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

The only people more incompetent than the President are employed in the media.

Posted by GaryMN | Report as abusive

“But a crisis cannot be declared. It has to be real.”

It has to be real or perceived, to wit, The Shock Doctrine chronicled by Naomi Klein.

Posted by juggernaut | Report as abusive

ooh, and George Orwell

Posted by juggernaut | Report as abusive

The answer to the headline question is NO! The president’s executive power is very limited. Anything he does will need the backing of congress if it is to have any meaningful effect. All he can do is jumpstart the political engine. Granted, the engine is in need of serious overhaul but I am glad he is doing something. Congress needs to follow suit and get off their soapbox before we can move this country forward.

Posted by gsmini | Report as abusive

@ JL4 —

I think you need to understand the principle of “separation of powers” upon which the US Constitution is based.

Clearly, it does NOT give the president the legal right to circumvent Congress.

The “logic” of the rest of your comment evades me, especially since you are basically calling upon Obama to commit treason in order to circumvent the law to do the “greater good” for the American people.

It is often said, and with very good reason, that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

THE PROBLEM IS OBAMA! Bill Schneider, and member in good standing or Obama’s Poodle Media is just trying to give him a pass, but the past 4 President before Obama, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II did make the system work. All of them worked with a Congress that was controlled or partially controlled by the opposition party and made big contributions. They new how to compromised and get things done. We all know that Reagan succeeded so well that with FDR he will go down as one of the two Great Presidents of the 20th century. Clinton and a Republic Congress passed Welfare reform and got the economy to boom and gave us a budget surplus. Neither probably would have done it by themselves, but they worked together. Obama on the other had has NEVER TRIED. He started his first term telling the Republicans “WE WON”, and his 2nd term trying to destroy Republicans by forcing tax rate increases when he would have gotten more revenue by working on tax reform with them. NOBODY TRUSTS Obama. His idea of compromise is you do what I tell you to do, and then he sticks a knife in the back of the Republicans that even try to work with him. NOBODY TRUSTS Obama. Not Republicans, not world LEADERS, NOBODY. He is an arrogant, ego driven, uncompromising, sneaky, LIAR. Its past time that the Poodle Media folks like Bill Schneider should be apologizing for Obama and his failed Presidency. He’s done so much damage to our nation we can no longer afford to give Obama and the democrats in the House and Senate a pass for their job killing, economy killing policies.

Posted by valwayne | Report as abusive

This argument that Lincoln ended slavery by executive order to justify Obama assuming broad power by executive order is popping up here and there.

The argument is bogus and you need to look at your history. The Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery. It only purported to free certain slaves in areas under the control of forces in rebellion against the Union. It was a wartime measure.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not free slave in loyal slave states, example Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and in areas of Confederate states that were under Union control.

And the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery anywhere. Slavery was still legal as an institution in the South even where slaves had been set free. Owners in theory could have purchased more slaves and started over.

It took a Constitutional Amendment to end slavery, not a stroke of the pen by Lincoln.

And again the reason why this question is important is because statists today are trying to use this bogus argument about the Emancipation Proclamation to expand President Obama’s powers beyond those granted by the Constitution.

Posted by Tearlach61 | Report as abusive

Washington’s not broken, it just has an incompetent president, plain and simple.

Posted by JSirko | Report as abusive

Gridlock has its good points, especially when the nation is very divided in its perspectives. Obama has only made Washington worse, with his practically nonexistent desire and ability to negotiate with those who don’t agree with him. On balance, having gridlock is better than ruling by decree — which is what Obama talks about wanting to do, to the extent that he can.

Posted by ExDemocrat | Report as abusive

@EconCassandra, I do understand the separation of powers. I understand a dysfunctional Congress. Perhaps you should understand that Presidents use executive power and it isn’t treason. All it means is that you don’t like it.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Ok all got it wrong ages depends on vision the last vision was to follow a voice that’s all no need to circle all on one orbit we need our voices to guide the lost voice

Posted by orabiabdullah | Report as abusive

@Valwayne. Did you watch the O’Reilly interview? How can one defend the blatant and outright lying to the American people? The man has consumed all the credibility he enjoyed. There is nothing left!

The most powerful person in the world does not hold himself accountable for anything that happens on his watch. Its as if every other President in the past did not have to deal with events, both unanticipated and beyond their control.

This has nothing to do with politics, but the man in the office. He was ill-prepared and unequipped for the job he pursued. Remove the rose-colored glasses–the emperor has no clothes. Mr. Schneider needs to do the same.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive