White House

Mad at Obama? Blame Republicans

It’s hard to see what the GOP has gained from obstructionism other than a president willing to stretch the limits of executive power beyond recognition.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 14: US President Barack Obama (R) walks with Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) after a luncheon at the US Capitol, on March 14, 2014 in Washington, DC. Speaker Boehner hosted a lunch for Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland in honor of St. Patricks Day on Sunday. 
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James Oliphant
June 3, 2014, 6:38 a.m.

The carp­ing is fa­mil­i­ar. Pres­id­ent Obama has “over­reached” and ab­used his au­thor­ity by re­leas­ing ter­ror­ist pris­on­ers without no­ti­fy­ing Con­gress and in pro­mul­gat­ing new en­vir­on­ment­al rules. But, as usu­al, Re­pub­lic­ans have few rem­ed­ies bey­ond press re­leases and the prom­ises of hear­ings.

That’s the state of play in Wash­ing­ton: trench war­fare that has las­ted more than three years.

Obama began 2014 vow­ing that he would no longer be side­lined by Re­pub­lic­an ob­struc­tion­ists — and he ap­pears to be mak­ing good on his threat. More ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions are likely on the way, as the pres­id­ent may well im­pose de­port­a­tion curbs if the GOP won’t con­struct­ively work to­ward im­mig­ra­tion-re­form le­gis­la­tion.

House Re­pub­lic­ans should stop and con­sider it — not be­cause of the polit­ic­al be­ne­fit the party might, maybe, en­joy by help­ing to broker an im­mig­ra­tion solu­tion. No, the bet­ter reas­on is this: If they truly fear the un­checked growth of pres­id­en­tial power, then their best op­tion is to come to the table and force com­prom­ise. It’s the one sure way to keep Obama from go­ing cow­boy (or, in their minds, tyr­ant).

As it is, the tox­ic at­mo­sphere in the cap­it­al and the nearly total lack of trust between the two sides has brought about a situ­ation that should make few who care about func­tion­al gov­ern­ment happy. As evid­enced by the con­tinu­ing battles over the Af­ford­able Care Act, which was passed only with Demo­crat­ic votes, ac­tions that carry the pat­ina of bi­par­tis­an­ship en­joy wider pub­lic sup­port. But the cur­rent polit­ic­al stale­mate has made such out­comes al­most im­possible.

That leaves Obama to act on his own. And not only does that en­gender fur­ther mis­trust, but it risks fun­da­ment­ally al­ter­ing the dy­nam­ic of power between the ex­ec­ut­ive and le­gis­lat­ive branches.

Take the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s pro­posed car­bon-emis­sions rules. Cap-and-trade died a grisly death on the floor of the Sen­ate in 2010 (coal-state Demo­crats helped slay it, too), but now the prin­ciple lives on in the new power-plant regs.

Re­pub­lic­ans have long re­fused to en­gage at all on the sub­ject of glob­al warm­ing even as it has slowly moved closer to the fore­front of do­mest­ic policy is­sues. Broker­ing a le­gis­lat­ive com­prom­ise might have made the rules more in­dustry-friendly and, polit­ic­ally, the GOP would have been viewed as a ser­i­ous act­or on an is­sue that has Amer­ic­ans in­creas­ingly wor­ried. But that now may be a lost op­por­tun­ity.

And Obama’s lack of re­straint doesn’t end there. The Guantanamo pris­on­er trans­fer is a prime ex­ample. When the White House ob­jec­ted to a pro­vi­sion in the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill that re­quired con­gres­sion­al no­ti­fic­a­tion 30 days pri­or to a pris­on­er trans­fer at Guantanamo, it did so through a mech­an­ism that be­came no­tori­ous in the George W. Bush years for its po­ten­tial for ab­use: the pres­id­en­tial sign­ing state­ment. That gave Obama the free­dom, the ad­min­is­tra­tion ar­gues, to ig­nore the pro­vi­sion as it saw fit when it came to swap­ping five Taliban fight­ers for POW Bowe Ber­g­dahl. “We have re­peatedly noted con­cerns with this re­quire­ment,” Jay Car­ney, the White House press sec­ret­ary, main­tained on Monday.

Would it have gone down this way if the White House viewed the GOP as bet­ter part­ners? It’s im­possible to say. But the end res­ult is a tattered law that was passed to rein in the ex­ec­ut­ive branch and now has largely been evis­cer­ated. Con­gress loses and the pres­id­ent wins — again. And that’s usu­ally what hap­pens in these situ­ations.

You would think the GOP might have learned a les­son about the cost of total ob­struc­tion­ism after Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id last year triggered the nuc­le­ar op­tion and did away with the fili­buster for ex­ec­ut­ive-branch nom­in­ees. Since then, Re­pub­lic­ans have been forced to sit on their hands as one Obama nom­in­ee after an­oth­er has sailed through the Sen­ate, which has had the ef­fect, among oth­er things, of tip­ping the fed­er­al ap­peals courts in fa­vor of Demo­crat­ic judges. Some­where along the line, a deal could have been cut that would have pre­served the fili­buster for use when it was truly needed.

In fact, when you stand back and search amid the ru­ins, it’s hard to see what ex­actly the GOP has got­ten out of its Hell No, We Won’t Go Along strategy. Yes, the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ing is down — and yes, the in­cess­ant at­tacks on Obama­care have played a role in that. But there are signs that the is­sue is los­ing steam with the midterm elect­or­ate just when the party needs it the most. And moreover, who is even less pop­u­lar than the pres­id­ent? Right: con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans.

The best press the GOP has got­ten here in years is when it ac­tu­ally cut a budget deal and avoided a gov­ern­ment shut­down. But that’s been the out­lier. And as the sum­mer ar­rives and the midterms loom, what will the House be do­ing with their lazy days, try­ing to reach a com­prom­ise on im­mig­ra­tion re­form or prob­ing #Benghazi even fur­ther? You already know the an­swer. And if and when the ad­min­is­tra­tion rolls out a new policy on de­port­a­tions (time-stamped shortly be­fore Elec­tion Day), Re­pub­lic­ans will again holler about over­reach but won’t have much else to show.

This is not to sug­gest the GOP should ever just roll over on the pres­id­ent’s agenda, but its con­tin­ued op­pos­i­tion to just about everything is a mis­read of the cur­rent state of ex­ec­ut­ive power. The play­ing field is tilted in the pres­id­ent’s fa­vor. Des­pite Obama’s fre­quent prot­est­a­tions to the con­trary, the mod­ern pres­id­ency comes equipped with a for­mid­able ar­ray of tools, ones that let him by­pass Con­gress with im­pun­ity.

The mon­ster is loose. With each passing week, Obama shows that he is grow­ing more com­fort­able with push­ing the lim­its of of­fice — and he could de­part in two years hav­ing ac­ted al­most on his own on everything from health­care to edu­ca­tion, cli­mate change and im­mig­ra­tion.

If he does, he ends up with a leg­acy. The Re­pub­lic­ans? Maybe a t-shirt.


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