At least one obvious conclusion may be drawn from a recent story examining President Obama’s increasingly aggressive use of executive orders to enact his agenda, and it is this: Government is broken.
Whether Obama’s actions are part of that or a consequence of it – the answer is probably both – is irrelevant to the larger problem. Washington does not function and the only thing to do about it is elect better people – something that voters seem strangely loath to do.
And yet, the evidence is clear. As one story in Tuesday’s Buffalo News showed, Obama is – or is perceived to be – distant from members of Congress, even those of his own party. Without the glad-handing, arm-twisting abilities of an FDR or a Ronald Reagan, his ability to persuade Congress to act on his agenda has been curtailed.
That’s a problem, though hardly unique to Obama or insurmountable. Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and other previous occupants of the White House also had trouble working with Congress. Yet things got done.
Add to Obama’s weaknesses, though, the mood of a surly and indifferent faction of Congress that is focused only on two goals: cutting government at any cost and opposing Obama, who, for reasons good or bad, they despise. That’s the game-changer.
Previous Congresses, even in politically divided times, managed to accomplish valuable goals and find areas of common ground, even if sometimes unwillingly. A Democratic Congress cut taxes at the urging of Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton reformed welfare at the urging of Republicans in Congress. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.
But Obama and this Congress, controlled by tea party Republicans in the House and greatly influenced by the threat – and chronic use – of filibusters in the Senate, have done almost nothing to find common ground.
The obvious example is immigration reform. Polls show most Americans, including Republicans, in favor of it. Obama has pushed for a workable compromise and, under bipartisan Senate leadership, a reasonable bill was crafted. But the House would have nothing to do with it, even blocking a vote on the legislation. What then, should be the president’s – any president’s – response? Throw up his hands or take what actions he can? The problems are severe, after all, and have developed crisis aspects, particularly in the number of children crossing the Southern border to escape danger in their own countries.
An executive order is not an ideal outcome. Perhaps a more persuasive president would have been able to negotiate better with Congress, but it’s doubtful. Tea party Republicans are a different breed: absolutist, and utterly unwilling to compromise.
Perhaps the system will work yet. Historically, when one party or the other gets out of line, voters give them a slap and they come back chastened, as Democrats did when Clinton was elected. Today, everything is out of line. Congress refuses to deal with serious issues, prompting Obama, for better or worse, to go it alone, raising all the risks that secret negotiations can threaten.
Will it all be enough for Americans to demand that their elected officials start dealing seriously with the serious issues before them? Frankly, it’s hard to be hopeful, but hope, right now, is about all there is.