Monday, January 27, 2014

Pen, Phone and Congress

"The logic of total opposition hasn’t changed: Republicans still face a risk of fratricidal attacks if they cooperate with Obama on anything, and gridlock and high unemployment still help Republicans by driving down Obama’s approval ratings."

Hence, it is understandable that President Obama wants to assert that 'he has a pen and he has a phone' to make change in lives of Americans. What one is not sure is Congress, with stoic faces of Republicans in State of Union address, is the right place to imply the politics of circumventing the Congress.

Situation has come to this state of affairs having President Obama and Democrats never realizing how Tea Party and larger Republican Party successfully built their political fortune on 'complete and nihilistic' opposition to any of Obama's agenda. President Obama missed those signs in 2010 when GOP successfuly sowed the seeds of ObamaCare as Government Overreach; it does not matter how many needy millions of Americans are going to get health insurance because of that law. While Democratic Party completely missed what the Census of 2010 and consequent gerrymandering brought - a hammerlock on House by Republicans. 

President Obama would have had a chance to achieve anything substantive with this Red Congress if either he had personal 'political history' with these lawmakers (essentially cheat slips to be paid off for personal favors Obama would have extended to lawmakers in reaching White House) or he has been popular with Americans forbidding Congress not to dare crossing him. Having won the first term on the basis of 'some one who is outside of Washington wanting to change Washington'; President Obama did not have any consequential political relationship with vast number of Congressional members. So he was stuck there. And as far as 'popularity' goes; President Obama and Democrats were enamored by the success of 2008 to think of Liberal Politics as 'wanting to spend the garnered bounty of political capital' to undertake a deep Blue reform with insufficient across the board support among Americans. Most liberal base of President Obama, including voters like myself, were swept by the scale of Democratic victory then, propelling for a strong activist strain of policy making; locking President Obama and Democrats permanently on Defense for long time to come. In other words, predicament of President Obama - unable to move any agenda with the Congress - is essentially making of himself.

No one is absolving Republicans for the way they have been sabotaging Americans for a while; all based on their conviction:

"They haven’t abandoned any of the central tenets of their party philosophy, which remains anchored in the conviction that the central problem in American life is a government that takes too much from the rich and gives too much to the non-rich. "

But having ditched Angela Merkel style politics - don't worry much about policy consistency / relevance, but worry about retaining popular base so as everything else follows on that popular support - President Obama is reduced to nothing other than 'pen and phone' in his pursuit of end run around the Congress.

But one is not sure how far a long term effective politics can be run that way. For a starter, Congress cannot go away from any consequential decisions of policy. Even seemingly autonomous foreign policy sphere where the Commander-in-chief is expected to have enormous policy leverage, Congress matters - just look that the way Congress 'screwed White House' in the Syria debate. Second, will Obama White House be able to detect 'opportunities' to pursue an executive process rather than a legislative route to make difference in lives of Americans? One cannot undermine the political acumen needed for identifying such right openings; the political acumen needed probably no lesser than to smell the rise of Tea Party. For example, Obama White House could work with Congress for the bipartisan legislation to enact reforms to Voting Rights while however intensely it wants to participate in the Common Core war, it may be prudent to stay away from it. It is the same Congress with which Obama Administration should deeply engage to pass Atlantic and Pacific Free Trade Agreements as well as Immigration Reform. 

Thirdly, even when Obama Administration identifies an opening to work on something without Congressional involvement (Federal IT procurement process?); will it be able to 'pull off it' competently? President Obama has to answer that honestly after the fiasco of ObamaCare roll out. Most Americans are unlikely to believe anything there at first. Meaning, there is a long way for this Administration to prove its 'chops' on Managerial Competence. 

All this does not mean Obama Administration should not try 'pen, phone and end run around Congress' approach. What it means is, the same political acumen, which is otherwise missing; is required here in ample quantities too. Obama Presidency has a clear 'danger of turning into lame duck' Bush Second Term due to lack of political smartness; though it has not slipped irreversibly in that mode yet. Clearly it makes sense for President Obama to try something different since he is no longer in the capacity to bring consequential legislative changes with this Congress. In a way he has lost that battle, Republicans have won there. 

What is left for him is try executive route, keep Democratic political road map filled with protecting what he has achieved so far (ObamaCare could be very easily gutted with Republican Senate and a GOP President in 2016), share the political benefits with Republicans in passing Immigration Reform and warn Americans about what happens when Republicans get Control of Washington: that Democrats land up cleaning the fiscal mess created by GOP. For all their talk of reducing debt; GOP squanders Federal finances to give tax cuts for rich every time it controls Washington.

When all your 'blue sky' grandiose plans are gone and time is ticking, it is much more prudent to pick up solvable concrete problems rather than squandering fast depleting political capital account. No easy challenges for President Obama.

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