When his party got walloped last week in the midterm election, an unbowed President Obama declared that he would “squeeze every last little bit of opportunity” to push his agenda in the waning years of his presidency. In the past few days, he has shown that he meant it.
Expectations are that Obama’s soon-to-be-announced executive action on immigration will go as far as possible, potentially protecting as many as 6 million illegal immigrants from the threat of deportation. The move is certain to inflame the right, but it represents the fulfillment of a promise to Latino activists.
Obama has also leaned on the Federal Communications Commission to protect “net neutrality,” with a blunt call Monday for more regulation of high-speed Internet providers. The idea that the big telecommunications companies should not be allowed to charge higher rates in exchange for faster connections is an issue on which Obama campaigned in 2008, and one that has strong support among young voters. But Republicans are resisting more government control, with Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) saying that it amounts to “Obamacare for the Internet.”
On Tuesday, Obama struck a potentially historic climate deal with China. It brought praise from environmental groups, which at times have felt the president has moved too slowly on the issue, and a hail of criticism from Republican leaders who are about to assume full control of Capitol Hill.
“The president continues to send a signal that he has no intention of moving toward the middle,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who will undergo a title change from minority leader to majority leader in January.
It is a reminder that a president — even one whose party has suffered a power outage on Capitol Hill — has the ability to make things happen.
“He sees problems he wants to solve, and he’s going to use the tools that are available to him to solve them,” said David Axelrod, who was Obama’s top political strategist and a White House senior official. “I certainly do not expect him to curl up in a fetal position.”
The actions also suggest a political calculation on Obama’s part that there is little to be gained from accommodating the new GOP majority in Congress, and some potential benefit in provoking it.
“The president’s trying to pick some fights, and he’ll hope we’ll overreach,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who is close to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
“It is a balancing act,” Cole added. “We’ve got to govern, but we’ve got to do it without losing our conservative credentials.”
Republicans are also considering ways of striking back outside the legislative arena. Among the options on the table: broadening the federal lawsuit that Boehner is planning to file over Obama’s executive orders to include his action on immigration, or possibly initiating a second complaint in court.
Democrats believe one reason the election turned out so badly for them is that parts of their base did not show up at the polls. “To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you,” Obama said in a news conference the day after the election. “To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”
In that sense, confrontation might be a good thing for Democrats as they prepare for the election of 2016, which will feature not only a presidential contest but also an electoral map that favors them in their bid to retake the Senate.
“We need to deliver for the folks who didn’t feel any reason to engage in the process” this year, said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal decision-making.
“We have to have policy positions, or articulate our policy positions, that show to this emerging electorate — young people, Latinos, single women — that the Democratic Party is fundamentally better for them than the Republican Party. And it’s not just slightly better, it’s a lot better,” the official added.
Obama’s stance is a marked contrast from that of other presidents who have found themselves in his position.
After the GOP takeover of the House in 1995, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) became such a dominant figure that President Bill Clinton felt it necessary to assert that he was still “relevant here.” Clinton ended up working with the Republican majority to enact welfare reform and balance the budget.
Obama himself took a more defensive and accommodating posture after the Republican romp in the 2010 midterm elections, engaging in negotiations with Boehner to strike a “grand bargain” on taxes and entitlements. The effort failed.
The difference now is that Obama will not be on the ballot again, and he has his legacy in mind as he decides how to spend his remaining time in office.
One way Obama’s presidency will be remembered is for how it has changed the terms of engagement on issues that he has made a priority, said White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer. He noted that future presidential candidates of both parties will be competing for the constituencies that were key to Obama’s two presidential victories.
“If you need these voters to become president, then in order to be president you’re going to have to be pro-immigration, pro-same-sex marriage, pro-economic fairness,” said Pfeiffer, who predicted “a world where no climate denier will ever be president again.”
But there is also a peril to a president moving ahead without having Congress behind him.
“You can issue all the executive orders you want. If you don’t have any money to enforce them, they don’t go very far,” said Cole. “We’re going to be pretty aggressive in using the power of the purse.”
Republicans made it clear Wednesday they considered the president’s climate deal with China’s President Xi Jinping unacceptable.
McConnell described himself as “particularly distressed” by the agreement, and contended: “It requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years, while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states across the country.”
McConnell’s home state of Kentucky is heavily dependent on its coal industry, and his criticism of the Obama administration’s climate change policies was a central theme in his hard-fought reelection campaign.
Republicans have said that Obama’s aggressiveness on global warming and immigration could make it more difficult for them to work with him in areas where some consensus exists.
“I’ve said before I hope we can do some business on trade and maybe tax reform,” McConnell said. “First indications have not been helpful.”
The new Republican Congress also has some tools at its disposal. Just after the election, McConnell instructed his aides to investigate ways the Republicans could block or delay implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, which is set to become final next June. The House has also passed several measures in the past it could revive, including one requiring congressional approval for any EPA rule estimated to cost at least $1 billion and another that would block EPA’s carbon limits on coal plants outright.
Though the rule has not yet been finalized, Senate Republicans are looking at passing language that would give states the option of not complying with the EPA mandate until litigation on the issue is resolved, or that would bar federal authorities from enforcing the rule, said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.
Obama will soon have to tackle another issue that is a flash point between his environmentalist supporters and many lawmakers: approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport heavy crude from Canada’s oil sands region to Gulf Coast refineries.
Senate Democrats are taking up a bill authorizing the permit as a way to help imperiled Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is facing a Dec. 6 runoff against Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.); the House is preparing to pass its own bill on the subject Friday.
Aides say Obama is prepared to veto the bill — exercising a power that he has used only twice before. His argument would be that the State Department has not completed its review of the process, and that the Nebraska Supreme Court has yet to rule on a key part of the pipeline’s route.
Judging by the current signals from both the White House and Capitol Hill, that veto may be the first of many.
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.