Is Obama Sacrificing the Senate for Executive Power?

Every time the president talks about taking unilateral action, he risks making it that much harder for Democrats to hold onto the Senate.

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
James Oliphant
Jan. 29, 2014, midnight

Al­most two dec­ades ago, Bill Clin­ton stood be­fore the na­tion and de­clared that “the era of big gov­ern­ment is over.” Tues­day night, Pres­id­ent Obama pro­claimed him­self the Big Man on Cam­pus.

The con­trast was stark: Obama’s Demo­crat­ic pre­de­cessor used the lan­guage of re­straint. This pres­id­ent, on the oth­er hand, spoke of do­ing more in a cam­paign-themed “Year of Ac­tion” — and do­ing it on his own.

The White House is gambling with this new mes­sage, bet­ting that a pub­lic dis­heartened by years of grid­lock and dis­trust­ful of gov­ern­ment will wel­come a pres­id­ent vow­ing to act uni­lat­er­ally, par­tic­u­larly to help the eco­nomy. Obama’s team is hop­ing, guess­ing, that the pub­lic won’t fear him.

It’s a risk — one the White House may not fully ap­pre­ci­ate. As one frus­trated Demo­crat­ic strategist put it: “People are sus­pi­cious of ex­ec­ut­ive power, so you have to tread care­fully.”

But worse yet for Obama, wheth­er he real­izes it or not, is the ef­fect this ap­proach could have on Demo­crats try­ing to hold onto the Sen­ate. In­deed, while the White House aims to demon­strate that this pres­id­ent re­mains large and in charge (and aims to boost his flag­ging stock as a res­ult), the tac­tic poses a not in­sig­ni­fic­ant chance of den­ig­rat­ing the role of Con­gress, and by ex­ten­sion the Sen­ate Demo­crats fight­ing to pre­serve his party’s ma­jor­ity rule. Obama may end up hurt­ing that cause more than help­ing it.

“There is some evid­ence that the Amer­ic­an people are tired of the bick­er­ing and want to fig­ure out a way of mov­ing for­ward to­geth­er,” said Wil­li­am Gal­ston, the former Clin­ton ad­viser now at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. Obama’s go-it-alone mes­sage, he said, could in­stead sound to the pub­lic like an ad­mis­sion that he’s thrown in the tow­el and giv­en up on try­ing to work with an ad­mit­tedly ob­struc­tion­ist GOP.

The be­lief in­side the White House that Obama needs to show a more ag­gress­ive side may be a mis­read of the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, said Gal­ston, who at­trib­utes Obama’s slide in pop­ular­ity both to the stop-and-start re­cov­ery and prob­lems with the Af­ford­able Care Act. The lat­ter means that voters may be wary about Obama’s pledge to do more. “There is an enorm­ous amount of skep­ti­cism about the abil­ity of gov­ern­ment to ad­vance its ends,” he said.

Polls show the pres­id­ent is fa­cing a cred­ib­il­ity de­fi­cit at the very mo­ment he is ask­ing the na­tion to have faith in his abil­ity to act without Con­gress. “He’s go­ing to have trouble ask­ing for that level of trust,” said Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Bill McIn­turff. “He’s on shaky ground.” McIn­turff helped con­duct the most re­cent Wall Street Journ­al/NBC poll, re­leased Tues­day, which showed that al­most 70 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans now be­lieve the coun­try is stag­nant or worse off than when Obama took of­fice.

The White House knows this, but seems un­able to ac­cept it. Pri­or to his ad­dress, Obama’s aides were quick to note that des­pite their push to rebrand 2014 as a year of ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion, the big-tick­et items such as im­mig­ra­tion re­form and hik­ing the min­im­um wage will still have to go through Con­gress. It’s res­ul­ted in some mixed mes­saging: The pres­id­ent can do a lot — but only just so much.

The risk is that the pub­lic Tues­day night heard one mes­sage but not the oth­er — and walked away with an in­flated sense of what a pres­id­ent can do. Obama’s bold talk may then be fol­lowed by or­ders that can im­pact the eco­nomy only at the mar­gins, fur­ther dam­aging his cred­ib­il­ity if the res­ults are tep­id — and drag­ging Demo­crats down with him. (And the one job-cre­at­or that Re­pub­lic­ans want him to ap­prove via ex­ec­ut­ive fi­at — the Key­stone pipeline — is locked in limbo.)

At the same time, he’s handed the GOP talk­ing points that line up with its nev­er-end­ing at­tempt to paint him as a big-gov­ern­ment tyr­ant — talk­ing points that they are already de­ploy­ing in key Sen­ate battle­ground races.

“It’s dan­ger­ous for them,” said Brad Dayspring, spokes­man for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee. The com­mit­tee has blas­ted out re­gion­al re­leases claim­ing that Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive pledge means: “Con­gress doesn’t mat­ter. Demo­crats like Mark Warner, Kay Hagan, Mark Be­gich don’t mat­ter. Your vote doesn’t mat­ter. I run the show.”

Dayspring called Obama’s mes­sage “strange, con­sid­er­ing the map Demo­crats face” in 2014, one loaded with con­tests that play to mod­er­ates in states such as Alaska, Arkan­sas, North Car­o­lina, and Vir­gin­ia. A Wash­ing­ton Post poll re­leased this week asked voters wheth­er the pres­id­ent should use ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion to ac­com­plish its goals. An over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Demo­crats said yes (and Re­pub­lic­ans, no), but in­de­pend­ents were split 49 per­cent to 49 per­cent on the ques­tion.

Sure, the White House doesn’t much care about what con­ser­vat­ives think, but one Demo­crat­ic Hill aide con­ceded the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rhet­or­ic has ali­en­ated some Sen­ate Demo­crats who don’t like to be painted by the same brush as the House in­transigents, not­ing how the White House now tends to use “Con­gress” and “Re­pub­lic­ans” in­ter­change­ably. To them, “it’s a huge slap in the face.”

But oth­er Demo­crats on the Hill and else­where be­lieve Con­gress mer­its the White House’s enmity — and that the pres­id­ent should be do­ing all he can with­in his con­sti­tu­tion­al power if le­gis­la­tion is stalled. This isn’t 1996, Clin­ton is long gone, and the mod­ern-day GOP has some­how made the Gin­grich-era party look reas­on­able by com­par­is­on. “There’s a lot more up­side than down­side for the pres­id­ent,” says Phil­adelphia-based Demo­crat­ic strategist J.J. Bal­aban. “The pres­id­ent may get cred­it with both his base and the middle for get­ting things done in the face of a Wash­ing­ton most Amer­ic­ans find deeply dys­func­tion­al.”

Maybe. Still, Jeff Link, a Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant in Iowa, doubts the pres­id­ent’s re­marks will im­pact the 2014 races in any way, es­pe­cially in his state, where there are three seats up for grabs. He noted that Obama on Tues­day night was go­ing up against a bas­ket­ball game pit­ting the Uni­versity of Iowa against highly-ranked Michigan State.

The pres­id­ent, he said, would lit­er­ally be tuned out — an­oth­er prob­lem the White House is fa­cing on in­creas­ingly wider scale. “This is the best Hawkeye team in years,” Link said. “Most TVs in Iowa will be watch­ing the game.”

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