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Don't Go It Alone, Obama

The president's new unilateral approach is bad politics

Jewel Samad/Getty Images

On Tuesday the president trekked to a middle school in suburban Maryland to unveil $750 million worth of corporate grants for wiring schools across the country. In keeping with his general theme of the last few weeks--“year of action,” “a pen and a phone,” basically all the White House rhetoric signaling it will no longer wait for Congress to help with the economy—Obama was at pains to point out that this particular effort "won't require a single piece of legislation from Congress. It won't add a single dime to the deficit." It wasn’t exactly Rooseveltian jawboning, but the message was nonetheless clear. What wasn’t at all clear was the thinking that produced it.

Let me stipulate at this point that I think most pundits—including some very smart ones—are way too pessimistic about the president’s political standing. Yes, Obama’s approval ratings have suffered a steady decline since last fall. And yes, Democrats have to defend a bunch of Senate seats in states where Obama is substantially less popular than he is nationally. But it’s hard to believe the president isn’t at or very near his political low-point. Over the next few months, the Obamacare rollout fiasco should mostly recede from memory, and public perceptions of the improving economy should start to catch up with reality. I wouldn’t exactly bet on a Democratic rout in the midterms—there’s almost no way they’ll take back the House. But I’d expect Democrats to hang on to the Senate, and Obama’s favorability move into the black by the end of the year.

Still, the White House made a mistake when it settled on unilateral action as its frame for 2014. It’s not that I have concerns about the balance of power between the executive branch and Congress, or the constitutionality of a presidency-by-executive fiat, which Republicans have sniffed about. (The orders Obama has vowed to sign, like raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, clearly fall within his constitutional prerogatives.) It’s not even that the executive actions he’s contemplating are too marginal to matter,1 which Obama seems to acknowledge with his tortured locution. The problem is that the go-it-alone motif misunderstands his biggest political need.

The best distillation of White House thinking on this comes care of Jonathan Chait, who’s generally more sanguine about Obama’s instincts than I am. After last week’s State of the Union speech, Chait explained Obama’s dilemma thus: The American public expects its president to improve the economy; the president is mostly powerless to do this as long as Republicans control the House and can filibuster in the Senate, and as long as they see no percentage in cooperating. Ideally, Americans would grasp this dynamic and apportion blame accordingly. Alas, they’re generally incapable of such nuance—“they lack a detailed understanding of the situation in Washington,” Chait writes. And so Obama is left with second-best options. Most recently, this means making it look like he’s taking action on his own, even if that action won’t amount to much.

Unfortunately, if Chait has correctly diagnosed the problem—and I think he has—Obama’s turn toward unilateralism won’t help his standing and could easily worsen it. Consider: Chait and I and the White House (if Chait is right) all assume these unilateral maneuvers will be highly limited in their substantive impact. Their only real value is signaling that Obama believes he can exert his will on the economy without Congress and is working really hard to do that. But if that’s the effect, then they only exacerbate Obama’s dilemma by further persuading voters he has influence over the economy we just agreed he doesn’t have.

Now maybe the economy will improve on its own, in which case no foul. As I said earlier, the chances that it will are reasonably good. But if the economy doesn’t improve, or god forbid it worsens, the new approach will be a disaster. It will stick Obama with an even larger share of the blame than he’d otherwise come in for. Since the point of a political strategy is to shape voters’ perceptions of events in a way that makes them look more favorable to you, not less, this doesn’t strike me as a step forward.

What strategy should Obama have adopted instead? He might have started with an idea his State of the Union speech noticeably omitted—namely, an ambitious economic initiative. I have in mind a half-trillion-dollar-ish mix of middle-of-the-road stimulus2 proposals and the odd crowd-pleaser from the left. Say, infrastructure spending, some corporate and individual tax cuts, and an extension of unemployment benefits. You call it the American Growth, Opportunity, and Puppies Act (since people love puppies), send a few hundred densely-typed pages of proposed text to Congress, then go tour the country while instructing the House to get to work.

The message you want to convey, in other words, is that you have big uncontroversial plans to fix the economy, and that the only thing that could possibly derail them is an ornery, self-serving opposition party. If Republicans decide they can live with the resulting fallout and refuse to budge, fine. At least voters will know who to blame. And if Congress starts to get queasy about standing in the way of Growth, Opportunity, and Puppies, then maybe something will come of it, if not the whole $500-billion package (which is an opening bid in any case). This is essentially the approach Obama took in late 2011. Though Congress didn’t sign off on his entire $450 billion American Jobs Act, his hectoring did make Republicans uncomfortable enough to extend a payroll tax cut worth roughly $100 billion. It’s pretty much the only time in Obama’s presidency I recall him playing his hand better than the cards he was dealt.3

This time around, by contrast, Obama actually has a reasonably good hand, thanks to an opposition that completely discredited itself during last fall’s shutdown, and which remains so confused and divided it can’t even decide what delusional demand to make in a theoretical debt-ceiling negotiation that NO ONE BELIEVES IS GOING TO HAPPEN. But instead of forcing the goofy, self-defeating Republicans into the spotlight and making them answer for economic stagnation, Obama’s year of doing-things-all-by-my-lonesome has effectively let them off the hook. It makes no sense.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber

  1. The exception of regulating power-plant emissions, which would be a hugely important development.

  2. You don’t call it stimulus, of course. We must never again use the word stimulus. 

  3. Obama did actually veer toward unilateralism at that point, too. About six weeks after he announced the Jobs Act in a speech before Congress, the White House unveiled its “We Can’t Wait” agenda, replete with copious executive actions. But the difference in circumstances proves the point. Back then, the “We Can’t Wait” strategy was an explicit response to Congressional foot-dragging on Obama’s economic package, a way of highlighting Republican obstructionism. “He’ll continue to pressure Congressional Republicans to put country before party and pass the American Jobs Act, but he believes we cannot wait, so he will act where they won't,” explained White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer at the time. This time, there’s no specific instance of obstruction to highlight because Obama didn’t offer up a big piece of economic legislation for Republicans to obstruct.