President Barack Obama has spent November acting with a defiant fury, moving with little regard for the message voters sent at the polls.
Instead of reaching out to Republicans who won control of next year’s Congress Nov. 4, he’s charged ahead with initiatives that infuriate the victors, prompting critics to label him a “king” or “emperor.”
Wednesday, the Obama administration began an effort aimed at easing smog-related pollution. Earlier this month, Obama took executive action on immigration and climate change. The White House has suggested he would block the Keystone XL pipeline. He’s vowed to have the federal government regulate Internet access.
This damn-the-GOP-torpedoes burst is dramatically different from the contrition and soul searching other presidents endured after their parties suffered stinging defeats.
George W. Bush worked with the new Democratic-controlled Congress after the 2006 election to craft economic stimulus legislation. Bill Clinton in 1994 overhauled his political team and would work to craft a bipartisan welfare overhaul. After Republicans lost Senate control in 1986, Ronald Reagan brought in Washington insider Howard Baker, who had been Senate majority leader, to run his staff.
Obama instead draws his already insular circle tighter. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel doesn’t spout the White House line in public, so he’s out. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough becomes a frequent visitor to Congress but doesn’t heed warnings from Republican leaders that an immigration order would be political poison.
“Free at last; free at last from the bondage of (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid, threats from the Republican leadership, and persistent press ‘wimp’ criticism,” said Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University.
“Now he can do what he thinks is right and to the extent possible do so with the help of loyal compatriots that believe in him and his priorities,” he said.
Two factors appear to be driving Obama. “He wants to prove he’s still relevant,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center.
And engaged, said White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer.
“Typically, when you have a change in power in Congress, the new congressional majority dominates the conversation and drives the discussion,” Pfeiffer said. “Since right after the election, the president has been driving the discussions, moving forward aggressively on core priorities.”
Voters, though, generally rejected those core priorities, as Republicans had a net gain of at least eight Senate seats and will start 2015 with their biggest majority in the House of Representatives since the late 1940s.
Obama maintains he’s on the right course; it’s just that Republican obstructionists have made progress difficult.
That’s a different take on defeat. Presidents whose parties were crushed in midterm elections were occasionally stubborn but usually found new ways to work with the other side.
Americans made it clear in 2006 they’d had enough of the Iraq war, then in its fourth year. Two months after the election, Bush announced a “surge” of additional troops, even though Democrats who now ran Congress wanted a withdrawal timetable.
Bush reached out to congressional leaders on other fronts, and by 2008, they agreed on an economic stimulus package, international help for AIDS victims and the financial industry bailout. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Bush “a lovely man.”
Clinton got his jolt in 1994 when Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Clinton shook up his political team, installing Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and South Carolina party stalwart Don Fowler as head of the Democratic National Committee.
Fowler this week saw big differences between Clinton and Obama. “Bill Clinton is a person who enjoys people,” he said. “He was very comfortable dealing with new people.”
Obama has always kept deliberations within a group of close friends and advisers, rarely meeting with his Cabinet or lobbying lawmakers. The inner circle includes senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who was close to the president in Chicago, McDonough and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Rather than move toward the Republicans since the elections on Nov. 4, Obama has defied them:
– Nov. 10. He declared strong support for net neutrality, the idea that Internet content be freely available and subject to government regulation to protect consumers. Opening the door to government regulation infuriated conservatives.
– Nov. 12. During Obama’s Asia trip, the United States and China unexpectedly agreed to new targets for greenhouse gas emissions designed help combat climate change. Republicans complained that Obama unilaterally decided the U.S. would cut greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels in the next 11 years.
– Nov. 20. Obama announced he would unilaterally protect millions of immigrants who are in the United States illegally from deportation.
– Nov. 24. Obama pushed out Hagel, a former Republican senator. It was widely reported that Hagel was dismissed after a series of disagreements. Previous Obama defense secretaries complained that national security discussions were often insular and guided from the White House predominantly by domestic politics.
– Nov. 26. The Obama administration said it will move to implement tougher air quality standards for ozone. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, branded the plan “massive new regulation” that would “cost our economy millions of jobs.”
Overall, Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who wrote the book “With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power,” said it appears that Obama and his advisers saw no reason to hold back despite the pledges by Republican leaders to cooperate with him.
Obama has signaled he won’t let up anytime soon.
The White House has strongly suggested Obama would veto a bill authorizing the Keystone XL oil pipeline – a top priority of the new Republican Congress – saying he will wait for completion of a State Department review.
And advocates are hopeful that he will be emboldened to tackle a Cold War relic. They want him to restore diplomatic ties and ease restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba, even though it would infuriate many South Florida Republicans.
After all, said Pfeiffer, “There is no reward for being meek here.”