Why suing Obama is a good move for John Boehner


House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio),, right, watches President Obama speak, as golfer Zach Johnson, left, looks on during a ceremony honoring the 2013 Presidents Cup U.S. team at the White House on June 24. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Talk has ramped up in recent days about impeaching President Obama — so much so that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was asked to respond to the effort, now led by Sarah Palin.

Boehner's brief response: "I disagree."

That's a good response. But there's an ever better one: "Who needs impeachment? I'm suing the guy!"

Boehner, who has previously signaled that he intends to sue the president over his use of executive actions, announced Thursday that the lawsuit would center on Obama's last-minute changes to his signature health-care law, Obamacare.

Whatever chance that lawsuit has of success, it doubles as a political arrow in Boehner's quiver — a great retort in case this whole impeachment thing gets out of hand.

Put simply, Boehner is not and will never be on board with impeachment. That's because he knows it's bad politics in an election year. As we've discussed before, that puts him in the somewhat awkward position of having to potentially tamp down impeachment talk — as Nancy Pelosi did in 2006. But unlike with Pelosi, in today's GOP, that could invite plenty of backlash from a conservative base that thinks the GOP establishment is too soft on Obama.

The lawsuit should help Boehner thread that needle.

There might be a lot of conservatives who view impeachment as the real play here and think suing Obama is a half-measure. But it's much, much harder to accuse Boehner of being soft on Obama when he's currently bringing the guy to court. That's no small thing.

It's also more politically palatable to the broader American electorate than impeachment.

House Speaker John Boehner plans to file a lawsuit against President Obama for what he calls an overreach of power. Jackie Kucinich explains what happens when Congress takes the White House to court. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

 

Impeachment is a very tough political trick. As the House was impeaching Bill Clinton, just 30 percent of the American people supported such a gambit. And, despite a lack of polling, we would wager there is even less support for impeaching Obama right now.

But suing Obama? That might be just fine with the American people. After all, Boehner is basically asking the courts to decide whether Obama has gone too far with his executive actions, rather than deciding himself. And the U.S. Supreme Court has already weighed in on a similar issue — Obama's recess appointments — and come down (pretty much) on Boehner's side. That helps.

In addition, the American people are inherently suspicious of excessive executive power. There aren't a whole lot of great recent polls on this, but it's kind of one of the underpinnings of our democracy (something about a certain King George, I believe), and a CNN/Opinion Research poll in January showed Americans preferred that Obama seek "bipartisan compromise" in Congress rather than act alone by a 67-30 margin.


Those numbers are likely inflated because people really like the word "compromise," but the poll also makes clear that Americans are wary of an overpowering executive. Boehner can simply argue that he's raising the issue and letting the courts decide.

As for the impeachment crowd, Boehner is basically doing what he did during the shutdown, giving it some of what it wants and likely hoping it's enough. Back then, he and other GOP leaders allowed the shutdown for 16 days as conservatives sought to roll back Obamacare. Eventually, when it was clear that wasn't happening, Boehner and others gave in and funded the government. And the tea party gave them credit for allowing the situation to play out.

Boehner is again throwing some red meat to the base — but rather than the 48-ounce Porterhouse of impeachment, it's an 8-ounce lawsuit filet. That might not satisfy all tea partiers' appetites completely, but at least he's feeding them.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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