Obama had hoped to play the role of negotiator and mediator, and the failure was a harsh lesson, according to Douglas Brinkley, one of several historians who have met regularly with Obama in sessions that sometimes focus on lessons from prior presidents.
“He navigated the racial divide in America. He certainly [feels he] should be able to work with Congress,” Brinkley said. “The problem the president has is you have to go back a long ways — to almost Confederates not wanting to be seen with Abraham Lincoln — to have a group of congressmen who don’t want to be seen in the same frame with him, let alone do deals with him,” Brinkley added. “I think people overrate what can be done on things like gun control and immigration. It’s just more gridlock.”
So Brinkley has spoken with Obama about the path taken by President Theodore Roosevelt, who treated Congress like an irritant and found ways to work around it.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has also been among the group of historians who have met with Obama, agreed, saying, “When you’re stymied by the Legislature, presidents have reached for executive action and been roundly yelled at by the other side. But you understand what powers there are in the presidency and how to use them more fully after you’ve absorbed those first four years. And that seems to be showing right now.”
“That’s one thing that [Obama] has talked about that he learned,” she said. “It’s showing now — more public press conferences, and the kind of language he’s using to get public support even though it’s going to create furor on the other side.” That strategy has been evident recently. Obama last year signed an executive order that made it easier for children of illegal immigrants to become citizens, a move that helped him win Hispanic support crucial for reelection.
Last week, knowing that he might get nowhere negotiating with Congress about gun control, Obama took 23 executive actions to strengthen gun laws in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He also urged Americans around the country to mobilize and call for action.
Obama also showed that he is willing to use harsh campaign-style rhetoric, saying at a recent press conference that he won’t negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt ceiling. Casting the opposition as villains and himself as a fighter for the common man, the president used some surprisingly stark language when he said he wouldn’t allow Republicans to hold “a gun at the head of the American people.”
Obama’s effort to go around Congress comes from his frustration in trying to deal with Republican leaders, including Boehner, whose intraparty fights with Tea Party backers have made him a difficult negotiating partner.
“I like Speaker Boehner personally, and when we went out and played golf we had a great time,” Obama said at a press conference last week, when asked about his reputation for being too insular. “But that didn’t get a deal done in 2011.”
Shortly after the debt ceiling deal collapsed in 2011, Obama’s campaign outlined a new theme called “We can’t wait” that outlined the ways in which he would go around Congress. Campaign focus groups found that people just wanted Obama to get things done, regardless of whether it was done by working with Congress or done through executive actions.
The new initiative had all the trappings of a presidential campaign. A new website was built, signs were made up, and a speech was given in Osawatomie, Kan. It was no coincidence that it was in the same small town where nearly a century earlier Theodore Roosevelt called for a strong government to protect ordinary citizens.
A crucial year lies ahead
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Obama told people close to him that winning in 2012 was almost more satisfying than winning in 2008. A portion of voters in 2008, he said, were rejecting the previous four years. Obama viewed his 2012 victory as a reaffirmation in his vision for the country. It meant his main achievements, including health care and Wall Street regulation, would be preserved and implemented, instead of dismantled, as his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, had promised.
Second terms are notoriously fickle. They can provide a framework for success, building upon the public’s vote of confidence, or turn into an exercise in lame-duck ineffectiveness. That makes the coming year all the more crucial for Obama.
“He has maximum political capital this year,” said Neera Tanden, president at the Center for American Progress, a think tank that has close ties with the Obama administration. “To the extent he can, he should try to forge his legislative battles this year.”Continued...