What I can’t do is force Congress to do the right thing...The American people may have the capacity to do that.
— President Obama, March 1, 2013
It’s the beginning of March, barely a month and a half into President Obama’s second term, and it appears serious governance is done for the next two years. The Washington Post reported this past Sunday that the president, confronted once again by an obstructionist Congress, is already looking ahead to 2014, hoping that the Democrats can capture the House in the midterm elections.
Well, then. That’s that. All we can expect out of our government for the next two years are stopgap measures to confront inflated and manufactured fiscal disasters, and spin, spin, spin. We get to be treated to two solid years of Congressional Republicans attacking Obama and vice versa, a sorry spectacle of political chess where nothing of substance gets done. No one is going to be fighting over big policy ideas or tackling the very real, staggering problems facing the country. Instead, the fights will be all about the hearts and minds of the voters. It will be about convincing them to pick sides. Vast amounts of money will be raised by the two parties and by Super PACs, and vast amounts will be spent to clog airwaves and print. The parties and their allies will burn countless numbers of man-hours, expend huge reserves of human energy, working like dogs to get their people into office. All this potential will go to either gaining or holding on to power; none of it to actually governing. Two years wasted, two years lost.
The job will be a lot harder for the Democrats to regain the House than it will be for the GOP to hold it. The GOP used their hold on state legislatures across the nation to gerrymander Congressional districts with brutal effectiveness following the 2010 census. In the past election, House Democratic candidates received a total of a million and a half more votes nationwide than Republican candidates, yet the GOP held the House 234 to 201. The Democrats won the popular vote by 1.3 percentage points, but they may need to win the popular vote nationwide by around 8 percentage points to capture the House. That’s a huge margin of victory, and very probably unlikely. The ridiculousness of this broken system aside, it’s something the Democrats will have to deal with in 2014.
Writing off the next two years is a big gamble for the Obama administration. Immediately following the opening of the term is when a second term president usually gets the most legislation passed. Lame duck status comes on quickly for second term presidents. Fatigue, staff turnover, Congressional investigations, Department of Justice investigations, subpoenas, indictments, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, all combine to slow a president’s second term to a crawl.
George W. Bush had one shot. After he won reelection, he used his political capital to push Social Security privatization, and fell flat on his face. With the exception of the Surge, he was a placeholder president for the remainder of his term. Bill Clinton was dogged by a politically crass and craven impeachment. Reagan was hobbled by the Iran-Contra scandal, Nixon by Watergate. If there’s one thing that any president should take away from his predecessors’ second terms, it’s that waiting is a bad idea.
Obama is betting that he can lose half his term attacking the GOP and win the House in 2014, securing him a small window in 2015 to pass lasting legislation. It shows a sick cynicism about his beliefs in Congressional Republicans to do anything but obstruct, but it’s not an unjustified cynicism. The GOP has taken saying ‘No’ to new heights since Obama was elected. In the House, they live so far to the right that some of the more blustery members have labeled conservative-born proposals like mandated health insurance as socialism once the Democrats were forced to embrace them. Disavowing conservative positions because the other party embraces them shows that they are not negotiating in good faith; that they are more interested in preventing Democratic victories than they are in actually legislating.
Over in the Senate, the GOP has led more filibusters than any other minority in that body’s history, effectively blocking all legislation and presidential nominees with impunity. (Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the GOP filibuster Chuck Hagel’s nomination only a few weeks after Harry Reid caved on filibuster reform. You reap what you sow, Harry.) Things have gotten so bad with nominees that the government and the courts are in danger of buckling due to unfilled positions. Potential nominees now have to face the fact that the nominating process could go on for years, leaving them in professional limbo.
President Obama has now dealt with a hostile Congress for his entire presidency, including the time when the Democrats held both chambers, due to the GOP’s use of the filibuster. Every single one of his administration’s plans has to be prefaced with the question, “Will the Republicans try to block this?” If the answer is yes, there aren’t that many options to get around the GOP. About the only effective method has been sticking public blame on the GOP and hoping party leadership feels it can’t take the hit. That worked last year with the fiscal cliff, but it didn’t work with the sequester. Obama’s method for the sequester was to hit the bricks and shame the GOP into negotiating, but they didn’t bite. The GOP proudly let the sequester take effect. If facts (HA!), poll numbers and public pressure aren’t enough to get the GOP to the table, maybe trying to get the voters to kick them out in 2014 is the only viable option.
I suspect, however, that two years will be a bit too long to wait, and the country will need our leaders to actually lead at some point before November 2014. Although not many people in Washington seem interested in doing so.