Barack Obama’s defiant response to the 2014 election results and the forthcoming Republican Congress has surprised and upset many in our nation’s capital. Obama has decided to rely upon an aggressive and expansive definition of his executive powers in order to make policy regardless of congressional preferences. This is a constitutionally controversial approach and one that carries some risks for his presidency and his party.
Obama apparently has decided that the prospects for cooperation with the congressional leaders as so low that he can defy them on high-profile issues without damaging his presidency. That is quite a gamble. Consider the following actions he has taken in the wake of the Nov. 4, 2014, election:
- On Nov. 10, Obama declared strong support for net neutrality, opening the door to greater governmental regulation of the Internet, an idea that infuriates conservatives.
- On Nov. 12, he announced an agreement with China setting new targets for greenhouse emissions to curb climate change. His unilateral decision calls for dramatically cutting emissions 26 to 28 percent in 11 years.
- On Nov. 20, Obama announced he unilaterally would protect 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation, the broadest executive action of immigration yet taken by a president.
- On Nov. 24, he fired Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, probably because of policy disagreements and Hagel’s ongoing conflicts with his White House staff.
- On Nov. 26, Obama indicated his administration would impose tougher air quality standards for ozone, another expansive regulation that raises GOP ire.
- The president has also indicated he would probably veto a Keystone pipeline bill that is certain to pass the new Congress in 2015.
Obama’s actions constitute remarkably ambitious attempts at presidential unilateralism. He is following his frustrated presidential predecessors in acting this way. Faced with obstacles to successful leadership, recent presidents have come to rely more on their formal powers.
The number of important executive orders issued by presidents has increased significantly since the 1960s, as have the issuance of presidential signing statements. Presidents use both in an attempt to shape and direct policy on their terms.
Presidents — including Obama — have relied more on recess appointments as well, appointing individuals to important positions during a congressional recess (even a weekend recess) to avoid delays and obstruction often encountered in the Senate.
Such power assertions generate controversy, elicit close media scrutiny and often further erode political capital, defined as presidential support in Congress and the public.
Barack Obama’s election in 2008 seemed to signal a change. During the first two years of his first term, he was able to secure landmark legislation with the aid of a compliant Democratic Congress. But these initiatives — the economic stimulus, Dodd-Frank financial reform and particularly the Patient Protection and Affordable Care act, his health care reform — proved highly controversial and helped to drive national politics to new extremes of partisan polarization.
With each legislative battle and success, Obama’s political capital waned. The public mood shifted against him, evident in the rise of the tea party movement, the drop in his approval rating, and the large GOP gains in the 2010 elections, which brought a return to divided government.
By mid-2011, Obama’s job approval had slipped well below its initial levels, and Congress was increasingly intransigent. In the face of declining public support and rising congressional opposition, Obama, like his predecessors, looked to the energetic use of executive power.
In 2012, the president used his executive powers to ease mortgage regulations on homeowners, help veterans find employment and ease the ability for students to consolidate college loan debt. He issued the first of what would be several executive decisions to ease immigration. His executive order authorized the Department of Education to grant states waivers from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act — though the enacting legislation makes no accommodation for such waivers.
Obama’s narrow re-election victory, coupled with the re-election of a somewhat-diminished Republican majority House and Democratic majority Senate, did not signal a resurgence of his political capital.
Obama’s administration did little to help itself improve its public or congressional support. Political analyst Charles Cook described the White House’s post-2012 approach in the following phrase: “No New Friends.” The president worked with Congress only when he absolutely had to. The sweeping GOP gains in the 2014 election have now revealed new, greater limitations on his public and congressional support.
Faced with the likelihood of legislative defeat in Congress, a president must rely on claims of unilateral power. But such claims are not without limit or cost and will likely further erode his political capital. It is hard to make new friends when your actions offend many important power holders in our nation’s capital.
Only by solving the problem of political capital is a president likely to avoid a power trap. Presidents in recent years have been unable to prevent their political capital from eroding. When it did, their power assertions often got them into further political trouble. That is the power trap: presidential power assertions, born of frustration, that further erode a chief executive’s political capital.
Obama has calculated that his prospects for improving his political capital in Congress are so bleak that he can only prevail by stretching and expanding the powers of his presidential office. That has generated great controversy and implacable hostility from the new majority party in Congress.
This great divide probably puts an end to Obama’s legislative achievements. It also carries a risk for his party. If Obama ends his presidency embroiled in constitutional controversies and widely viewed as a divisive chief executive, how will his party’s 2016 nominee present herself as a plausible governing alternative? Obama doesn’t seem to have placed much priority on that outcome.
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.