SOTU kind of a promise, kind of a threat

Stephen Crowley of the New York Times wins the Combat! blog Obama Photo of the Year.

Stephen Crowley of the New York Times wins the Combat! blog Obama Photo of the Year.

In last night’s State of the Union Address, President Obama offered a modest agenda that he proposed to enact “with or without Congress”—mostly through executive orders. For those of us who voted for him in 2008, it was a call to ambivalence. It would be nice to see the President do things like raise the minimum wage for federal contractors or curb carbon emissions, and Congress has certainly made Washington less effective by its recalcitrant opposition. But if an adversarial relationship with Congress is the problem, enacting minor policies by presidential fiat will only exacerbate it. And at this moment in our federal government, do we want to give more power to the executive branch?

Before we explore these heady considerations, I would like to take a moment to marvel at the use of the word “hardened” in this Times headline. The image of the President hardened at the podium, announcing his authority to ram policy through Congress whether they like it or not, must surely be the basis for some kind of niche erotica.

But that’s the fun part. The less fun part is that conservative Republicans, already convinced that Obama is some kind of tyrant, can only see last night’s SOTU as a declaration of war. The bipartisan centrist we elected in 2008 is not the one who lays out his agenda and then asks Congress whether they are going to “help or hinder this process.” He is still near the center, but the GOP has shrunk away from him, and last night’s tough talk can only make it shy further.

If you doubt the degree to which Congressional Republicans suffer from oppositional-defiant disorder, consider that one of their guests last night was Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty, whose sole qualification was that his father criticized homosexuals in a magazine interview. Robertson is a TV hick who makes duck calls for a living, but he is also something that liberals (and moderate Republicans, and most people under age 60, and many churches) are against. Congressional Republicans embraced him, just as they will embrace anything that symbolically opposes the president.

A series of small, highly publicized executive orders will only sharpen their appetite for obstruction. Here it is instructive to consider the problem of recess appointments, an issue that already has the GOP crying foul.

On one hand, it’s dumb that Republicans in the Senate have blocked what were once routine nominations, leaving several leadership positions in federal agencies unfilled. On the other hand, the president’s practice of filling those positions when Congress is in recess may not survive a challenge in the Supreme Court.

It sucks that Congress has set itself so adamantly against the president that it cannot abide his filling of the National Labor Relations Board. But it sucks primarily because Congress and the chief executive are feuding openly over petty things. Promising to enact more petty things over congressional objections won’t solve that problem.

President Obama is on the side of right in his complaint that Republicans are obstinately stymying his appointments, but his solution puts him in the wrong. Justice Kagan correctly observed that in the present day, recess appointments are “a way to deal not with congressional absence, but with congressional intransigence, with a Congress that simply does not want to approve appointments that the president thinks ought to be approved.”

Congressional intransigence is a problem, but so is the agglomeration of executive power. Given the ongoing controversy over the NSA’s operation outside of congressional oversight or even awareness, the president’s plan to do more things unilaterally struck a jarring note. I’m no fan of the present Congress, and I want them to pull their collective heads out of their collective asses, but I don’t think it will help for Obama to stick his further in.

That his promise/threat to do so is both ominous and kind of heartening suggests what a deplorable state our union is in. A president who took office with overwhelming support and a bipartisan mandate for change has tacked toward center, only to see Congress veer away from him. Their reactionary commitment to preventing everything has forced Obama to commit radically to doing something, and that’s not good for the county. We don’t need to see the branches of government hardened against each other. We need to see them soften, embrace and go to sleep.

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