A note of caution.
Republicans in Congress and in the commentariat are fed up with this White House failing to faithfully execute the law, as is its constitutional charge. Regarding this administration’s selective enforcement of the laws passed by Congress – ranging from DOMA to DACA, from recess appointments made while Congress was in session to the delayed and selective implementation of the Affordable Care Act – the GOP is foursquare behind a proposal to sue the president over his flagrant abuse of authority.
The public at large, however, is less than enthralled with the idea of suing President Obama. “Based on what you have read or heard, do you believe that the Republicans in the U.S. House should file a lawsuit against Obama, or don’t you feel that way?” CNN/ORC pollsters recently asked the public. 57 percent said that the GOP should not sue Obama while just 41 percent supported the lawsuit.
On its face, this makes little sense when compared to another finding in this poll: a plurality of Americans think Obama “has gone too far” in his effort to extend the powers of the presidency. 45 percent agree that Obama is expanding executive authority beyond its appropriate constitutional limits while just 22 percent say he has not gone “far enough.” Only self-identified liberals, Democrats, northeasterners, and urban residents disagree that the president has exceeded the boundaries placed on him by the Founders. Another 30 percent of respondents believe Obama’s actions are “about right.”
How do you square these two incongruous results? While a plurality may believe that Obama has exceeded his authority and should be reined in, the public may also think a lawsuit filed by already suspect congressional Republicans is the right instrument to accomplish that.
The public’s calculation may yet change, particularly if Obama moves forward with even more excessive executive actions. Time Magazine, for example, suggested on Thursday that Obama may be preparing to unilaterally implement part of the immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate in 2013 but failed in the House, and extend legal status to up to 8 million illegal U.S. residents. That remains an unlikely eventuality. Barring a similar abuse of power, the GOP has a lot of educating to do in order to convince the public that this lawsuit is appropriate.
And that education effort will be a titanic task.
Appearing on MSNBC with Chuck Todd on Friday for the first leg of an upcoming book tour cum anti-poverty push, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) was asked about only one other issue besides his Earned Income Tax Credit proposal: the House lawsuit.
“Is this a productive – a productive thing for House Republicans to be focused on in an election year?” an incredulous Todd asked.
“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Ryan replied. He conceded that the traditional vehicle to rein in the executive would be the power of the purse – a vehicle stuck in neutral while the Senate continues to shield the president from legislative checks. That is why, Ryan said, he will support the lawsuit.
The tone of Todd’s question is instructive. The press, the political entertainment complex, and the liberal establishment in general will frame this lawsuit as a waste of time at best or, at worst, an example of Obama’s persecution at the hands of deranged Republicans. There are precious few examples in the recent past of instances when the GOP was able to speak over the heads of the media and convince an already skeptical public that their course of action is the correct one.
It seems possible, given the general mistrust in the president, that a narrow majority could be convinced that the House lawsuit is necessary. The Republicans, however, will have to stop acting coy and self-conscious about it and make that case. All the while, they will not be talking about economic opportunity, Obamacare, the nightmare on the southern border, or the president’s inattention to crises overseas. Democrats, meanwhile, would like nothing more than to contend that they are dealing with a myopic opposition party which is far more focused on scoring political points against Obama than the concerns of the public.
Republicans may believe that a principle is at stake and preserving the Constitution’s separation of powers though the courts is worth taking a hit in the polls. In an election year, that is a risky proposition and the pursuit of principle could mean the difference between emboldening or neutering the Obama presidency in its final years.