President Obama insists Republican opposition to his policies has forced him to boycott Congress and resort to governing by executive order. This is only partially true. Yes, Republicans strongly oppose his initiatives. But refusing to deal with Congress was Obama’s decision, his choice.
After the midterm elections this fall, Obama will have an opportunity to make another choice. There is a lot riding on the strategy he chooses for his last two years in office: his legacy, the fate of policies and programs he’s pushing in his second term, the election prospects for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, the likelihood that the country will continue to be as politically and ideologically divided as it has been in his six years as president.
It’s pretty simple why Obama should choose a new strategy, one in which he engages Congress, especially recalcitrant Republicans. The past two years have not gone well for him, his presidency, or the Democratic party. His popularity, as measured by polls on his job performance, has plummeted and shows no sign of rising. And Democrats face losing control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.
On top of all that, Obama’s new proposals and initiatives have gone nowhere. Immigration reform, gun control, universal pre-K schooling, another economic stimulus—all have failed to rally the country, much less attract support in Congress. His foreign policy of retrenchment has weakened America’s influence around the world. His habit of impugning the motives of Republicans hasn’t gotten him anywhere.
Obama’s go-it-alone approach has sharp limitations. There’s only so much a president can do on his own. And when he has exceeded his presidential authority—as he has done repeatedly in revising the rules for implementing Obamacare and handling illegal immigrants—it has prompted lawsuits and waves of criticism.
Given the incentives to change, why wouldn’t Obama do so after the midterms? He has his reasons. He doesn’t like to change his mind. He loathes compromise. He doesn’t relish rewarding Republicans for their intransigence. And he doesn’t want to commit himself to unpleasant negotiations with GOP leaders. At this point in his second term, Obama is even stiffing Democrats on Capitol Hill. He has become a political hermit in Washington.
Obama might ask: Why don’t Republicans step up and make me an offer or two? Why is it up to me to break the ice with seemingly implacable opponents? The reason is that he’s president and that is what a president is expected to do—not hide but act. The job of national leadership falls on the president, not the House speaker or any other official of Congress. It falls on the only official elected by all the people.
Besides, Republicans are likely to be comfortable with their circumstances next year. Why should they seek a compromise with Obama when they might have a Republican president to deal with in two years? Activating Republicans is Obama’s task, not the other way around. Otherwise, nothing will happen.
Obama has much to gain from instigating talks with Republicans. If they spurn him, he’ll look good and they’ll look more obdurate than ever. But they have to accept a presidential overture. And whatever comes out of their getting together, even if nothing does, Obama will get credit.
The problem for Obama is that he also has something to lose. He would have to compromise as part of any agreement. He would achieve less than he wants.
There are at least two policy areas that Obama and Republicans could usefully talk about in 2015: tax reform and immigration. True, these don’t look like hot prospects for agreement at the moment. But if the president were fully engaged, that would improve the prospects of making headway, perhaps even agreeing on something.
On tax reform, Obama and Republicans already agree on the first step, eliminating tax preferences and loopholes, mostly favoring the business sector. They disagree over what to do with the tax money this would generate. Obama would spend it. Republicans would use it to slash tax rates.
Compromise wouldn’t be easy. It might be impossible. A formula for dividing the proceeds between rate cuts and spending could be devised. But it would still be hard to agree on. Republicans would demand a cut in the top rate on individual income. Having worked hard to increase the top rate, Obama would be disinclined to lower it.