It’s State of the Union time tomorrow, and the lack of progress on President Obama’s second term legislative agenda has led many pundits to conclude that his presidency is basically over. Here’s a representative example from Juan Williams:
As President Obama goes to Capitol Hill for his State of the Union address he is telling the world he is fed up with Congress — the paralysis and the GOP obstruction — but his anger is secondary to signs that he is a demoralized lame duck.
Or take Ron Fournier, reliably blaming gridlock caused by bone-deep structural issues in both culture and politics on the president not leading hard enough.
These pundits are right about one thing: probably no legislation of significance will pass for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. But what Obama can do, and is doing already, is use the executive branch to achieve a great deal. On climate change, financial regulation, and several other areas, the president can still accomplish a lot.
Because here’s the truth: financial reform is all about implementing Dodd-Frank, which is going better than expected. Climate change is all about using the EPA, which is going better than expected. And the long-term prospects of both of these efforts have dramatically improved since Senate Democrats abolished the filibuster for judicial nominations, and got some Democrats on the DC Circuit Court, which oversees these areas.
In his interview with the New Yorker, Obama despaired about his capacity to influence Congress. This led some pundits to bewail the president’s “schmooze gap.” In reality, Obama was right. Really, the best thing he can do to enable legislation is quietly encourage back-benchers in both parties to come up with bipartisan proposals, and above all avoid mentioning any of these policies himself. (“What’s this, an immigration reform bill? OK, sure, guess I’ll sign!”) For a Republican Party driven absolutely loopy by hatred of the president, any connection at all between him and legislation is the kiss of death.
Unless something big changes, that will continue to be the case until one party or the other controls both the White House and Congress.
To be fair, the pundits do have sort of a point. It is deeply troubling for an ostensible democracy to be completely incapable of dealing with near crisis-level issues through the legislature, the most important branch of government. But these are issues and challenges that can’t wait the decades it could take to achieve the kind of structural reform of the American system that could fix our gridlock problem. For right now, executive action is far better than nothing.