New York Times
By John Harwood
December 7, 2014
WASHINGTON — To the surprise of both allies and adversaries, President Obama has declined to humble himself following another midterm election bludgeoning.
To the contrary, his recent immigration action made clear his determination to focus tenaciously on his governing objectives, without hiding his derision for Congress. His abandon might even have affronted the Barack Obama of 2008, who ran for president against a political system “that’s divided us for too long.”
Mr. Obama has long since concluded that pursuing dreams of reconciliation in his final two years in office is a fool’s chase. So he is offering an alternative model for 21st-century presidential success.
It does not hinge on job approval ratings. As Mr. Obama’s weak poll numbers make clear, he has failed to unite the country.
His current approach does not depend on bipartisan deal making or good cheer. The president has failed to win over congressional Republicans.
It does not even turn on protecting the political interests of his party. Fellow Democrats were hammered on Election Day last month, as in 2010, which explains Senator Charles E. Schumer’s recent complaint that the party blew it by following Mr. Obama’s lead on health care.
It turns, instead, on advancing the major policy goals that Mr. Obama embraced as a candidate. Through that prism, he continues to make progress.
When Democrats controlled Congress in 2009-10, Mr. Obama won passage of a major economic stimulus package and Wall Street regulation legislation. Those measures have been followed by a stronger recovery from the financial crisis than other advanced economies have enjoyed.
The Affordable Care Act fulfilled a goal that had eluded Democratic presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton.
Mr. Obama kept his promises to wind down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. After Republican election victories blocked his agenda in Congress, Mr. Obama shifted to executive action for his domestic goals. His Environmental Protection Agency is devising rules to curb carbon emissions. He invoked prosecutorial discretion to shield some five million illegal immigrants from deportation.
Neither executive move accomplished as much as Mr. Obama could have through legislation, but may have been the only realistic routes forward that a polarized political system allowed him.
George C. Edwards III, a Texas A&M professor who edits Presidential Studies Quarterly, wrote last year that critics of Washington dysfunction “take their frustrations out on the president, declaring that he should more effectively move the public and Congress to support his initiatives. There is little prospect for success in these endeavors, however.”
Presidents, Mr. Edwards noted, “cannot create opportunities for change. Instead, effective presidents recognize and exploit opportunities that exist in their environments.”
Mr. Edwards’s view rests on his conclusion, after poring over data since the advent of political polling, that the persuasive power of the bully pulpit has always been “a myth.” Public approval tends to drift away from any president’s views over time.
Lacking the power to shift public opinion, presidents hold scant leverage over members of Congress not already inclined to support them, Mr. Edwards said in an interview. Moreover, they now have fewer means of persuasion.
When President Lyndon Johnson pursued the Great Society, he could woo moderate Republicans on the basis of ideology and conservative Democrats in the name of partisan unity. In today’s polarized system, lawmakers have grown increasingly uniform in opposition to a president from the other major party. And levers that had been used to broker compromise, like pending earmarks for pet projects, have mostly been eliminated.
From the outset of Mr. Obama’s presidency, Mr. Edwards argued, aspirations for a post-partisan transformation in Washington were unattainable. But he says Mr. Obama’s advancement of key domestic and foreign policy goals “makes him a consequential president” — for good or ill.
Given partisan and ideological divisions, roughly half the country would almost invariably choose “ill.” The last president to muffle the trend toward increasing polarization was George Bush. Not coincidentally, he failed to win re-election.
Since then, assessments of the Oval Office occupant have grown increasingly divided by partisan affiliation. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month, 77 percent of Democrats approved of Mr. Obama’s job performance; only 8 percent of Republicans did.
That ensures continued rancor over the health care law, Mr. Obama’s approach to business regulations and his foreign policy, particularly whether his commitment to ending George W. Bush-era military campaigns blinded him to new emerging threats from the Islamic State and other foes. On issues like immigration, Democrats’ dependence on nonwhite voters and Republicans’ reliance on big majorities of whites add a racial charge to the debate.
This landscape, except in extreme circumstances, does not offer the emotional balm of consensus about a president’s performance.
Unilateral White House action, even if it furthers a president’s goals, cannot provide as durable a basis for national policy as law enacted with at least some support from both Republicans and Democrats. That is one reason the president’s health care law, which passed with only Democratic votes, remains unpopular.
“I don’t define success as reversible executive orders,” said William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and an advocate of bipartisan problem solving through the organization No Labels. “That’s defining success down.”
Mr. Galston, once Mr. Clinton’s top domestic policy adviser, faults Mr. Obama for not courting Republicans as effectively as Mr. Clinton did. That did not stop House Republicans from impeaching him.
And the affable Mr. Bush, who left his mark by cutting taxes and going to war after Sept. 11, 2001, did not get far with his pledge to be “a uniter not a divider” in Washington.
“That’s not the way politics works in America,” Mr. Edwards said.
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