By Elvin Lim
Obama’s speech last week was an attempt to be as partisan or liberal as possible, while sounding as reasonable as possible. “Why would that be a partisan issue, helping folks refinance?” the president asked as part of this strategy. The Republican Party continues to suffer an image problem of being out of the mainstream, and the president was trying to capitalize on this moment of vulnerability. There is broad support for preventing the budget “sequester,” on minimum wage legislation, and a path to citizenship for children of immigrants — the president knows it, and he is leveraging public support to try to secure compliance from errant members of Congress.
As he showed in his Second Inaugural Address, this is not a president willing to mince his words any more. To talk about climate change and the “overwhelming judgment of science” is to take a clear, uncompromising position. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations,” he said, “I will.” Presidents at least since Theodore Roosevelt have painted themselves as active problem-solvers, as opposed to bickering members of Congress, in order to justify a muscular, even unilateral executive branch. Conservatives who are quicker to see this pattern in liberal presidents should remember the perils of presidential bravado in the next conservative administration; liberals who are enjoying their president pulling his weight should pause to consider if they can consistently stomach the same unilateralism in a different time for different purposes, when it is a conservative president who proclaims, “Now’s the time to get it done.”
Get it done. They deserve a vote. Send me a bill. But the Constitution doesn’t work like that. The televised address makes it look like the president is legislator-in-chief, but he is anything but that. He can only execute the law; but to make the law he wants to execute, he needs Congress. So it may be a stroke of luck that a day after Obama’s speech, the news cycle is still consumed with the Christopher Dorner story, suggesting that Americans are tired of politics and political news after the previous year of campaign mud-slinging. Obama’s supporters want him to get on the permanent campaign, but some forget that doing well on the speech circuit could well generate congressional resentment and mobilize the “party of ‘no'” against him. There is a time for splashy, public campaigns; but look out for silent strokes of executive action in the days to come. “Decision, activity, secrecy, and despatch” are and remain the hallmarks of the executive Publius defended in Federalist 70. Obama has already signaled unabashedly that he will make the tough decisions. He appears to be doing so very publicly, but there is a secret side to transformative agendas. When the going gets tough and Congress doesn’t get going, expect Obama to be traversing his agenda with much despatch. His State of the Union address this year constitutes full disclosure, if we care to parse it carefully.
Elvin Lim is Associate 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 on the OUPblog regularly.