On January 20, President Obama gave a speech to the U.S. Congress and American people on the “State of the Union.” Obama’s theme was that “the dark shadow of crisis for America has passed.” The speech comes after a crushing defeat of Obama’s Democratic Party in November 2014 in which the opposition Republican Party took over control of the Senate, increased its majority in the House, and increased its control of state governments, beginning in January 2015. Obama placed his policies—foreign and domestic—before voters who soundly rejected them.
Based on Obama’s speech and the initial activities of the Republican-led Congress, will national leaders come together to overcome gridlock and dysfunction?
My prediction is that things will get much worse. Here’s why.
Obama as a transformative president
Obama’s vision—the welfare state—for America resembles the social democratic governments of Europe. He wants to move America substantially away from its centrist model to one of big government, high taxation, redistribution of wealth, heavy regulation, social justice, and pro-environmental policies; while leading from behind on foreign affairs. Now that Obama cannot run for president and is finished with the 2014 elections, he seems liberated to pursue his vision.
Presidential veto power
Obama, especially over the past few months, has taken the unusual step of threatening to veto Republican legislation that does not fit his vision, even before the Congress drafts it and submits it to him for approval. There will be no compromise either on his policies already in place, or on new ones that he might develop.
Even though the Republicans control both chambers of Congress, it will be difficult to override Obama’s legislative veto. Republicans will need to secure two-thirds of votes in the House and Senate to pass legislation over Obama’s veto. Republicans control 54 seats in the Senate, Democrats 46. To override an Obama veto, Republicans need 67 votes, meaning Democrats would have to join Republicans, going against their own party. This won’t happen: historically, only 10 percent of veto overrides succeed.
Additionally, 60 votes are needed to use some procedures to process legislation. Democrats can stop legislation from going forward in many cases.
Supreme Court challenges
Republicans, unable to overturn Obama policies through legislation, have turned to the Supreme Court, asking it to overturn Obama policies which they believe to be unconstitutional. They are doing so on several policies related to Obamacare—the universal health insurance scheme. While this approach may be successful (the Court has overturned the last 12 actions by the government), it cannot be done for every piece of legislation, nor can it be done when legislation is constitutional. With only two years left in office, going to the courts will not work. Many Republicans do not support this approach in any case.
Congressional partisanship and politics
Even though Republicans now control the House and Senate, the party is anything but united. The Tea Party—which is not really a separate party, but rather a group on staunch conservative Republicans—is strong enough to deny the so-called “establishment Republicans” the votes they need to pass legislation. The Tea Party tried to unseat the House Speaker, John Boehner in January. Establishment Republicans tend to be much more middle of the road, lack a viable policy agenda except being against Obama, and likely compromise with Obama more often than not.
Establishment Republicans will not shutdown the government to force Obama to back off from his agenda. The Tea Party was able to shut down the U.S. government in October 2013 to January 2014 in an effort to defund Obamacare. They failed, but in the process damaged the Republican Party in the short term. They have vowed not to do this again.
They will not choke off funding for Obama policies and programs. Republicans always cave in when it comes to setting a cap on deficit spending (on the annual budget). U.S. debt (the amount owed to creditors) is at $18 trillion and climbing. Unfunded liabilities (expenses in the future) for Social Security and Medicare for the elderly are at $128 trillion.
And, they will not try to impeach—i.e., remove him from office in a congressional trial—Obama as they attempted against Bill Clinton. Not only would this destroy the country, but there is little time left in Obama’s administration to do this.
Further, the Republicans have months ago started campaigning for the presidency in 2016 with Obama being unable to run, and for Congress as well. This means that Republican Party governance will be even more factious given that it will be difficult to get consensus on things like immigration policy—granting citizenship, providing $40 billion annually in benefits. But it also means everyone will be worried about whether their actions will allow Democrats to regain control of Congress, and win the presidency.
Democrats also will be divided among those who want to see former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as their presidential nominee and those who would like a more left-leaning candidate like Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Regardless, with the presidential campaigns of both parties in full swing for at least a year now, governance will be chaotic. The US, it should be noted, is now in perpetual campaign mode with much less attention to governance.
All of this favors Obama; he will seek to act without Congress when he can. Here’s how.
Obama’s executive actions
The U.S. constitution allows the president some discretion in acting without Congress. Obama has pushed this discretionary power to the limit and intends to do so to realize his vision. In November 2014, Obama basically granted amnesty to 5 million illegal aliens living in the U.S. and committed the U.S. to UN carbon emission targets without Congressional approval.
Regulatory power of government
Congress through legislation grants authority to agencies to regulate businesses, organizations, and individuals to ensure that laws are complied with. Because Obama controls these regulatory agencies, it can easily thwart Congress. In 2014, Obama’s regulators produced 75,000 pages of new regulations, costing businesses $200 billion. Many of these concerned the environment. Were these regulations run through Congress, they would likely not have passed.
Ignoring the law
Obama has on occasion ignored laws which he has sworn to uphold. Obamacare is a law (at $1.36 trillion by 2024) that was poorly written, even though it was intended to help people get access to affordable health care. Some of the provisions of the law which do not work in practice were simply not enforced—mandated health insurance provided by employers was postponed for a year. This concerned hundreds of millions of dollars. Likewise, Obama is not enforcing border protection with Mexican.
Rationale for Obama’s governance approach
Why is Obama so intent on the approach above? Opinions vary. Obama, as a transformative president has been concerned with his legacy from the day he won election in 2008. Since the Republicans have thwarted his policies, Obama is using every means necessary to triumph over them.
Additionally, it looks like Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016. While Clinton is very different from Obama, she will have to support much of his agenda if she wants to win over Obama supporters.
Concerning Republicans, it is difficult in the American system to undo the work of previous presidents no matter how much one disagrees with them. So by pressing his agenda and imbedding it in law, regulation and executive action, the next president will be unable to undo much of it once elected.
Finally, Obama, in his speech, flooded the Congress with dozens of new legislative proposals: free community college ($80 billion); new taxes on rich and banks ($362 billion); raise in minimum wage; paid sick leave and parental leave; child care subsidies; Cuban policies; and more. These will keep Republicans busy trying to propose alternatives and justify why these are bad ideas. Obama has traditionally represented Republicans as the party of “no.” And he has successfully blamed Republicans and former President George Bush for past domestic and foreign policy failures.
In 2016, the Democratic Party could regain control of Congress and win the presidency.
Bottom line: Obama wins!