WASHINGTON, January 4, 2015 – President Obama’s poll ratings are on the rise. After the brutal beating his party took in November – a beating bad enough that in 2016, which by the math and the map strongly favors them, Democrats may have a hard time taking back the Senate – Obama believes he has the GOP on the defensive.
It takes an unusual sort of willful ignorance to believe that a president, even an unpopular one with little support in Congress, is powerless. All things equal, a president would do better with his party running Capitol Hill, but things are rarely equal, and the president has a great deal of power on his own.
Since the election, Obama has announced a series of important changes to immigration policy, a climate deal with China, and the removal of some sanctions against Cuba. The first item enraged Republicans, who then showed themselves unable to do anything. The second passed largely unnoticed, and the third has generated some enthusiasm.
On top of it all, the Senate let a dozen Obama judicial nominees fly by in December. When Obama took office in 2009, 10 of the 13 courts of appeals had a majority of judges appointed by Republicans; now nine of the 13 have majorities appointed by Democrats. Obama has had 305 judges confirmed to the federal appeals and district courts; George W. Bush had 256 confirmed at this point in his presidency.
Political power is partly institutional, and partly a matter of perceptions. If Obama acts as if political momentum is in his favor, and if the Republicans acquiesce, then it is indeed in Obama’s favor.
In order to maintain that sense of momentum, Obama will have to do more than he can do by executive order. Congress will have to give him some of what he wants. That can happen in two ways: The Republicans are split, and he is able to peel some of them away to join Congressional Democrats to vote for programs he wants; and he finds common cause with Republicans on issues that most Democrats don’t support.
Obama has been attempting to negotiate a the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a NAFTA-like free-trade deal with 12 Pacific-rim countries. In a December speech to assembled CEO’s, Obama declared, ““while there’s no doubt that some manufacturing moved offshore in the wake (of NAFTA), … more of those jobs were lost because of automation and capital investment. … Those who oppose these trade deals ironically are accepting a status quo that is more damaging to American workers.”
To get the TPP approved, Obama has reached out to Congressional Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner and Ohio Senator Rob Portman. In the process he has angered and frustrated Congressional Democrats, who remember his 2008 campaign rhetoric in opposition to free international trade. Then he talked of the “devastation” of cities in the Midwest. Now, says former Governor Ted Strickland, “I understand that the president would try and get this passed mostly with Republican votes. I would hope that would not happen because it would be demoralizing to the Democratic base.”
Obama’s shift to free trade has been gradual, but now it looks likely that he will ask Republicans for fast-track authority to negotiate the TPP. The GOP establishment favors free-trade agreements, though some Tea Partyers do not. With help from pro-business Democrats, Obama could rack up a major legislative victory this year, further establishing that he is far from out of the picture.
Congressional Republicans are not monolithic. Support for Boehner in the House is tepid, and his support among the GOP rank-and-file is even less; according to an EMC Research poll, 60 percent either strongly want or lean in the direction of a new speaker.
Republicans are divided on immigration and Cuba. Many of them loath Obamacare, but they aren’t likely to vote unanimously to repeal it, and even if they do, they won’t pick up enough Democrats to override a presidential veto. Obama’s signature bill and current initiatives are unlikely to be stopped or even slowed by Republican resistance. Republican hopes for that will have to come from the courts.
Two months ago, President Obama’s presidency appeared to be dying. After the election, he started to feel better, and now he feels fine. If Republicans in Congress had a coherent vision that could unite them, they could deliver a sudden relapse. That is what many in the GOP base desire. But part of being a Republican is learning to deal with disappointment. The odds of a disappointed Republican base this year are very good. Obama will continue to recover.