By Elvin Lim
President Barack Obama, who had taken a backseat to allow the First Branch to set the health-care reform legislative agenda last year, has now moved into the driver’s seat of American government. An electoral shellacking was all it took to for a former constitutional law professor who once espoused the separateness and equality of branches to stop practicing what he once taught.
The irony is that it was united Democratic party control of all branches of government that allowed Obama the luxury of taking the back seat. When before, he could have relied on Pelosi and Reid, Obama has recently learnt that he can only rely on himself. The Oval Office is a lonely place, but he who realizes it quickly learns that as a result, it is also a powerful place.
So a lame-duck Congress was reborn like a phoenix last week with the ashes of presidential leadership. Obama unilaterally stepped in to negotiate a deal with the Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts, without consulting the Democratic leadership. Some say he sold out, but all that matters is that he cut a deal. And whenever a president can put his signature to a piece of legislation, he wins.
Nancy Pelosi did not even turn out for the signing of the $858 billion tax bill. Granted that she is about to turn over her gavel to John Boehner as Speaker of the House, but her absence gives us a preview of what the next two years of the Obama presidency will look like. No, not that Obama will be sharing photo-ops in with Republicans (which to be sure, he will), but that he will be at the center of every picture.
Divided party control of White House and Congress invariably summons the imperial presidency. Whenever there is gridlock, the president becomes the Great Negotiator – he who enjoys the discretion to cut deals and to give concessions. Now, the bad cop can turn to his liberal base to say, “what did you expect me to do?” and the good cop and turn to his conservative allies to say, “see how much I’ve sacrificed for you?” When the president performs this strategic pirouette, he invokes the ancient power of monarchs, prerogative. And, as presidents have learnt to say, only ideologues and knaves stand in prerogatives’ way. People say gridlock is going to weaken the Obama presidency; I say gridlock was his godsend.
Not that I think this is a good thing for constitutional government. For better or (mostly) for worse, the president has become the face of American government. He has become the font of our hopes and dreams because when nothing else works, Republicans and Democrats alike wait for our political messiah to signal an answer. And so the Founding logic has been inverted. Today, even as the Congress proposeth, it is the president who disposeth — Article 2 now leads Article 1. As Obama has learnt on health-care, a president who takes the back seat means a leaderless party and a disheveled Congress. Conversely, when a president wins, so does his party. And so a republic has become a personal presidency. This is one of the unfortunate structural realities of modern American politics. The more divided we have become, the more power we send to the only person in the entire constitutional constellation who is uniquely in a position to negotiate a deal.
Some Republicans are now cheering that they got a relatively good deal from the president on the tax bill. What they might not realize is that Obama is already positioning himself for 2012. Look at any head-to-head poll between Obama and either a primary challenger or a Republican contender. For all the missteps of his last two years, the president’s approval ratings are still hovering in the mid-40s. The president remains fairly likeable; or at least no less likeable than Reagan or Clinton were in their second years in office. Certainly, the approval ratings for the 112th Congress will rise a little at the start of next year, but it will soon fall back to its paltry equilibrium when the bickering invariably begins. All Obama would have to do then, is to preside “presidentially” over the gridlock and surreptitiously advance his own agenda in the name of compromise and bipartisanship, positioning himself as peacemaker and defender of the American people. Liberals with gripe, but Independents will swoon, and Obama would be well on his way to a second term.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each Tuesday.