“What the president said today was if there was unconditional surrender by Republicans, he’ll sit down and talk to us. That’s not the way our government works.”
Poor John Boehner. Though the House Speaker is not as conservative as the Democrats make him out to be or as Tea Party Republicans would like him to be, his view of how the political machinery of the republic should function is knuckle-dragging paleo. He does not appear to have grasped that President Barack Obama has discovered a new, 21st Century way to operate it. The clash between Boehner’s old way and Obama’s new way is what brought us to the shutdown.
Boehner is a republican (small r) traditionalist. A former state legislator and an old-fashioned political deal-maker in Congress, he rose to power by mastering the give-and-take of legislative log-rolling. American government was designed specifically to forge compromise from competing interests, and Boehner has spent his career doing that. So when President Obama says he won’t play the game, Boehner is at a loss. “That’s not the way our government works,” he says. Were Obama to reply, he might say, “That’s not the way it used to work.”
To understand this shutdown, it is essential to understand the president’s five-year effort to increase executive power by weakening Congress. His incessant speech-making, his refusal to negotiate, his dismissal of all criticism – these are more than the manifestations of a regal temperament. It is true enough that the president is a narcissist. But his oratorical presidency is more than a prideful self-indulgence; it is a political strategy.
More than any president since Woodrow Wilson, Obama believes deeply in the power of oratory. Wilson, the minister’s son who practiced delivering speeches in his father’s empty church, put the “pulpit” in “bully pulpit.” He believed he was ordained by God to be president, and he preached Progressivism with evangelical fervor. It was not by whim that he revived the orally delivered State of the Union address, becoming the first president since John Adams to deliver it in person before a joint session of Congress. Such was his confidence in his own oratorical powers that he believed he could convert Congress and the people to his views by showering them with beautiful words. Obama has updated Wilson’s evangelical progressivism for the 21st century.
Technological advancements and the growth of the state have bestowed advantages upon Obama that Wilson never had. Why bother laboring through tedious negotiations with Congress when one can use the power of television to speak directly to tens of millions of American voters at any time? Why buy a vote with a policy concession when one can ride Air Force One (the plane, its staff and its fuel financed by Wilson’s income tax) to the district of the influential congressman whose vote you need, tell every one of his constituents either directly or through the local press why he’s a scoundrel, and be back in time for dinner?
The way Obama sees it, he doesn’t need Congress. The Framers envisioned a system in which the people would elect representatives, the states would elect senators and the electors would elect a President, and those delegates would produce laws that would represent the will of the majority while at least taking the rights and concerns of the minority into consideration. Obama envisions a system in which he uses the media and the machinery of the modern state to rally the people, who will then demand that Congress implement his agenda unchanged.
This is why Obama gives so many speeches, preferably outside of Washington. He is not just enjoying the sound of his own voice. He is bypassing Congress. Listen to his political speeches. Those that are focused on pushing his agenda through Congress are almost identical. He issues vague, patriotic-sounding platitudes, asserts that all reasonable, disinterested people agree with him on the issue at hand, portrays Republicans as selfish or corrupt, and urges the listener to “act,” usually be demanding that Congress agree with Obama.
Obamacare is the best example. Instead of buying Republican votes by horse trading in Congress, Obama took his message directly to the public. By the tally of CBS News reporter Mark Knoller, the media’s keeper of such data, from March 5, 2009, to March 19, 2010, Obama gave 54 speeches urging the people to back the Affordable Care Act. That’s a speech a week, and they were delivered all over the country. As Knoller wrote on March 19, 2010, “he appeals to his largely supportive audiences to back his appeal for enactment of his plan…”
The legislators Obama did negotiate with on Obamacare tended to be Democrats. In the week leading up to the vote on the health care law, Obama spoke 64 times with wavering members of Congress, “nearly all of them undecided Democrats,” Knoller reported.
Obamacare was passed without a single Republican vote because Obama thought he did not need Republican votes. He had his oratory and “the people” behind him, and that would be enough. It was not enough, though. He needed the Cornhusker Kickback and other backroom deals of the type he still disdains. But pass it did, and ever since then the president has been convinced that he need never make any substantial concession. If the Republicans annoy him by demanding some, he will hit the campaign trail and talk them into submission.
For five years Republicans have absorbed the barbs of a president who always has sought compliance rather than consensus and has bypassed them when they refused. Protests about coalition building and respecting a co-equal branch of government have fallen on deaf ears.
Remember that one of Obama’s first acts as president was to reverse George W. Bush’s compromise executive order on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Bush had sought a middle ground. His order continued federal funding for research using existing lines of embryos, but banned it for research using new embryos. Obama deliberately jabbed pro-lifers by undoing the compromise and allowing funding for all embryonic research.
Obama has used executive orders and executive rule-making authority to make policy on numerous issues, including contraception, immigration and guns, that probably would have required compromise had he sought to enact legislation through Congress. In the most controversial cases these were deliberate and successful attempts to avoid making even the most minor concessions by avoiding putting the issue before Congress.
Even after Republicans won the House in 2010 by riding a national wave of opposition to Obamacare, nothing in the administration’s approach changed. The president, who clearly did not get the message voters had sent, continued to dodge Congress, a strategy he employs still. Obama forces the closure of open-air national parks and memorials while refusing to negotiate an end to the shutdown. This is nothing new, but merely an extension of his effort to pressure Congress to comply by making his case directly to the people.
Bypassing The Republic
What the shutdown illustrates more clearly than any previous episode is how corrosive and unproductive this strategy has been. If the shutdown is entirely the fault of Tea Party “obstructionists,” why didn’t it happen in 2011, after the Tea Party-energized Republicans took the House? Because Republicans thought then that they finally had enough leverage to cut deals with the president. Obama proved them wrong. After 2012, a sizable minority of Republicans decided that the only way to make Obama negotiate was to threaten a shutdown. And it still has not worked.
I was no fan of the Ted Cruz shutdown gambit, which I thought was a political loser. Any realistic assessment of the shutdown would show that Cruz & Co., not Obama, forced it. The point is that they could not have gathered enough House support had so many Republicans not come to the conclusion that such drastic measures were the only way to bring Obama to the table.
The president’s strategy for implementing his agenda by pressuring Congress rather than engaging it is, in its essence, a repudiation of the Framers. They designed a system in which three separate institutions would reach compromise through enlightened debate. Obama has tried to replace one of those institutions, the House of Representatives, by using a fourth – the modern mass media – to engage the people directly.
That might seem like a more democratic alteration of our form of government. Going directly to the people would be better than dealing with their elected representatives, right? In reality it is more despotic than democratic because it enhances the power of the executive at the expense of the House of Representatives, replacing dialogue with diatribe.
The people do not get to engage the president when he talks to mass audiences either live or through electronic screens. He is speaking, not listening. There is no give and take. That is done when members of Congress campaign in their districts, and inside Congress itself, which Obama’s oratorical presidency is intended to supplant.
Yes, the people vote for the president. But he is elected to execute the will of Congress, which is more directly accountable to the people and in which minorities (whether regional, racial, factional, etc.) have their voices enhanced. By replacing House negotiations with televised speeches, Obama intends to weaken Congress, strengthen the executive and render Republicans irrelevant to governing. Republicans have figured this out. They just haven’t figured out an effective means of counteracting it.
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.