President Obama openly picked a fight with Republicans this week in installing Richard Cordray as the first chief of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau through a legally dubious recess appointment. The question is why the GOP—particularly presidential hopefuls—decided to so enthusiastically join the fray on an issue that the White House clearly views as a winner.
“It’s a baffling decision,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House.
After all, Obama jetted to the crucial swing state of Ohio to announce the Cordray appointment, engineered a daylong media blitz, and, by evening, rallied his activist supporters via e-mail. “He'll work with Congress when he can, but if they refuse to act—he will,” said a missive from James Kvaal, the Obama campaign’s national policy director.
On the campaign trail, Republicans swung back nonetheless. The ever-cautious Mitt Romney weighed in to say it was “Chicago-style politics at its worst.” Texas Rep. Ron Paul said Obama “acted in clear disregard” of the nation’s founding document.
“The president is not a dictator or a king who can simply ignore the Constitution whenever he feels frustrated by the system of checks and balances,” Paul said in a statement.
But each was making a parliamentary argument—claiming that Obama overstepped in seating Cordray despite the Senate holding only minutes-long, biweekly sessions intended to block such appointments. Defending the sanctity of “pro forma” sessions that allow most senators to be absent for a full month while denying they’ve formally “recessed” is tenuous political ground, even if procedurally correct.
The cries of "foul" from the GOP grew throughout Wednesday as Obama followed up his Cordray bombshell by seating three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.
It marks the second time in as many months that Republicans were lured into talking about Washington process while the president hit the stump to talk in broad strokes about how he is protecting consumers and the middle class.
The president has seized an anti-Wall Street, populist mantle heading into his reelection bid and hopes to paint congressional Republicans as his chief foils. The Cordray tussle dovetails perfectly with those themes, Lehane noted.
“The president’s team is running a very smart tactical campaign to drive that larger strategic positioning,” he said. Republicans, meanwhile, “seem very willing to oblige the president by engaging in these fights.”
Indeed, barely an hour after Romney criticized the president for “circumventing Congress,” Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said the former Massachusetts governor “stood with predatory lenders and Republicans in Congress over the middle class.”
In some ways, the fight is a replay of the December payroll-tax debate in which House Republicans attacked a White House-backed compromise for a two-month payroll fix as inadequate and unworkable. They demanded a formal conference committee to craft a full-year package.
Obama countered that he simply wants to protect working Americans’ tax cuts. Republicans—despite widespread agreement among economists that a two-month tax extension is poor policy—quickly folded.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, "was absolutely right,” said Jon McHenry, a Republican political strategist. “But the politics were against him.”
McHenry said he sees differences in this spat, with opportunities for both sides to play to their bases. “It’s an opportunity to pop President Obama,” he said.
Still, the Republicans are battling on Obama’s preferred turf. Although the appointments are expected to be challenged in court—and the Republican position could very well win—scoring legal and political victories are very different in Washington.
“They are on a dangerous road,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the Senate’s biggest proponents of framing fights around the middle class, said in a statement Wednesday, “and they continue down it at their political peril."