On day one, President Barack Obama will arguably face one of the most daunting situations of any U.S. president in the past six decades. Everything is in shambles: our economy, our international prestige, our military strength and, especially, Americans’ belief that their government can fix these things. In four years, Obama is expected to fix it all — or face the wrath of an electorate that doesn’t often understand that some of these things take time.
And a majority of Americans thought he has the skills and leadership to do it, despite his inexperience. That’s a pretty strong mandate for a candidate who was barely known only two years ago.
But this isn’t a column about how bad things are or how Obama has the right stuff to turn it all around. This is a column about how the way Obama goes about doing these things will matter almost as much as what he does. Come Jan. 20, Obama will have one really easy way of doing business and one impossibly difficult one — and like any human would, I expect him to take the easy route, at the expense of unifying our country and protecting the Constitution.
As you might have guessed, the easy route runs through the overwhelming Democratic majority in Congress. For at least the next two years, Obama will not only have a Democratic majority backing him up in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, he will only be a few Republicans away from a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
And if the current Democratic Congress is any indication, there will be a lot of members willing to obey orders instead of use the powers granted to them by the Constitution. Remember what happened with those once-lauded timetables and funding cuts for the war in Iraq? What about our $700 billion bank bailout? In both cases, Congressional Democrats were pretty good at being toothless when they had every reason not to be.
Couple that unprecedented support in Congress with the executive branch’s already bloated amount of power, and we might as well just king Obama instead of inaugurate him.
That’s not to say I think Obama will intentionally stretch the Constitution’s limits or avoid the tough checks from Congress. He has spoken time and time again about how he believes the Bush administration’s constitutional excesses in the war against terrorism have chiseled away at our most important document. And as a constitutional law professor, Obama respects the Constitution — hell, he has spent a lifetime studying it.
I worry that Congress won’t have the gall to challenge an Obama administration, and Obama won’t have many bipartisan paths for doing business. For both Obama and Congressional Democrats, taking the easy way out will just be too tempting.
A lot of my worries hinge on what the remaining Republicans in Congress will look like. As best as anyone can guess, they will be a radical group. Several pundits, including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, have astutely observed that the Congressional Republicans who abandoned their seats this year were from the relatively moderate wing of the party. Left behind in the House are the entrenched Republicans from Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution. In the Senate, there will be representatives from only the safest Republican states.
At least in the House, these representatives haven’t been particularly well known for their ability to work with others. They’re better known for throwing wrenches into the system. Just look at how House Republicans doomed their own party’s presidential nominee by blowing up the bank bailout he helped construct. With nothing to lose, these people can be ruthless.
And these are supposed to be the representatives Obama forms bipartisan relations with — people willing to sacrifice our economy and one of their own for ideology? How do you realistically work with that?
The truth is most people don’t. You ignore these people when they aren’t being reasonable, especially if you’re a pragmatist like Obama who is tired of blindly ideological solutions. And when that doesn’t work, you let your colleagues go a little further — maybe allow them to effectively corner the ideologues out of important policymaking processes like Hillary Clinton did in 1993. Or maybe you use your executive powers a little more broadly.
That is tempting to do. And I have a feeling Republicans won’t make it any less tempting come January, when the most obnoxious of them will take the reigns of the party.
I hope Obama has the patience to resist the temptation.
Gary Graca is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.