Has Barack Obama finally learned a belated lesson from his second midterm debacle? Initially, the President sounded defiant, promising a unilateral change in immigration law and abandoning the 52-year diplomatic break with Cuba. According to the Wall Street Journal, though, the last several weeks have provided an opportunity for Obama to face a new reality of having no firewall on Capitol Hill, largely because of his own policies and performance. With one eye on the typical lame-duck project of establishing a legacy, Obama has begun an outreach to the opposition leadership, Carol Lee reported on Friday:
The White House plans to pivot from PresidentBarack Obama ’s reliance on executive actions in the coming year and invest more in a legislative strategy aimed at trying to advance key policy goals with the new, Republican-controlled Congress, senior administration officials said.
The new approach reflects a White House acknowledgment that Mr. Obama has already taken some of the most significant executive actions in his arsenal as well as the idea that several of his top priorities might actually be more easily achieved without Democrats in control of the Senate, senior administration officials said.
Mitch McConnell got a one-on-one meeting with Obama in early December, but isn’t sold on the supposed “pivot,” as the WSJ headlines it:
Republican leaders, aides say, want to work with Mr. Obama but are skeptical that he will compromise and that even if he does, that he will deliver the votes needed from his party.
“If he’s going to run around the country talking about things that have no chance of passing rather than running around the country focusing on the areas where we agree, he’s not going to be very productive,” said Don Stewart, deputy chief of staff to incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). “We just had an election on his policies.”
McConnell made the same points with me when I interviewed him for the Hugh Hewitt Show just before Christmas. There are openings for both sides to get what they want out of the next two years, but that depends on how obstructionist and unilateral Obama wants to get. If he keeps doubling down on regulatory action rather than working with Congress, his legacy will end up being impotence and stagnation.
Politico’s David Nather reads the tea leaves and comes to the opposition conclusion from Carol Lee. Obama will turn 2015 into an executive-branch power play against an opposing Congress rather than triangulate to finish on a cooperative note:
The Obama administration is preparing another active year of executive action in 2015, pumping out new rules and enforcing others for the first time — setting tougher standards on everything from air pollution to overtime pay to net neutrality, food safety, commercial drones, a college ratings plan and a crackdown on for-profit colleges that don’t prepare their students for well-paying jobs. There’s even going to be the first draft of a rule for organic pet food.
Yes, that’s the legacy Obama craves — cracking down on pet food. Talk about shrinking horizons …
The rules and regulations will set up more confrontation with a newly unified Republican Congress, which will use all of the tools at its disposal to try to stop individual policies and blast the Obama administration for being too rule-happy in general. The new rules will get merged, generally, with the GOP’s complaints about Obama’s executive actions on immigration — its view that he’s a go-it-alone president who’s ready to fire off executive actions on whatever he wants without listening to Congress.
Most of the administration’s agenda for 2015 doesn’t rise to that level. It’s more about keeping the regular stream of regulations coming on initiatives that have been underway for years. But even that will give the Republicans plenty of ammunition — they’ll talk a lot about how, in their view, Obama is indifferent to the economic impact of all of his regulations. …
[T]he active regulatory agenda of the Obama administration will be a constant presence in the policy debate, and it will generate new fights with Republicans in Congress even as they’re still scrambling to respond to the rules that have already been announced. They’re likely to use all of the leverage they can find, including legislation to block some rules, appropriations riders to cut off funds for others, and oversight hearings to force the Obama administration to justify the stream of regulations.
Thanks to consolidated control of Capitol Hill, Republicans can finally exercise the power of the purse in regular-order budgeting. In the previous two sessions of Congress, the Senate refused to budget on the House’s agenda (and on its own rules), which created all sorts of artificial budget crises and produced an endless stream of omnibus bills. Starting immediately, the House and Senate can coordinate on normal appropriation bills and cut off funding for regulatory enforcement where desired. Obama can still veto those bills, but they will contain funding for other executive-branch priorities that Obama may not be able to live without. He won’t budge on ObamaCare, but Obama and his fellow Democrats will pay a price for a constant stream of vetoes in defense of intrusive regulation.
Republicans can also make use of the Congressional Review Act to repeal regulations. That also requires a presidential signature, but those actions can be added as amendments to bills that address presidential priorities. That’s the most direct route to rolling back Obama’s unilateralism, and would once again force Obama to defend regulatory expansion in some pretty uncomfortable places, especially for Democrats looking to run for his office in 2016.
Nather’s view of the future seems more likely to come to pass than Lee’s, at least if one considers Obama’s track record over the last six years. Expect to hear plenty about pens and phones, while Republicans take control of actual governance.