President Barack Obama’s toughened, beat-up-on-Congress strategy, which he honed in the payroll tax cut fight at the end of 2011, should only intensify this year, with the White House facing a tough re-election fight and dim prospects of seeing much of consequence enacted.
Democratic and Republican aides on Capitol Hill see the White House continuing a more aggressive approach that has tossed aside bipartisan niceties such as golf games and confabs with Republican leaders. Instead, the president has given increasingly populist speeches on the hustings. The theme of those speeches usually includes rapping the GOP as beholden to the rich and as dumping policies they used to support to keep Obama from claiming legislative victories.
The White House kicked off 2012 by making controversial recess appointments of Richard Cordray as director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and three picks to the National Labor Relations Board.
The moves infuriated House and Senate Republicans who insisted the nominations were unconstitutional because the Senate was in pro forma session and therefore not technically on recess.
“If the president had any intention of working with Congress, he wouldn’t have done that,” said one senior Senate Republican aide who saw the moves as a tone-setter for the year.
But the provocative picks are part and parcel of the White House’s “we can’t wait” strategy of taking action while blaming Congress for “unprecedented” obstruction, in the words of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise then that White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley decided to resign, given the White House’s new, more confrontational strategy. Daley had been touted as the White House’s liaison to the GOP and the business community, but the more populist approach taken by the president in recent months appeared to leave him on the outs.
The White House has noted that Congressional Republicans no longer have the leverage they did during last year’s debt limit and government shutdown debates. The only must-pass bill on the agenda is a leftover from last year — a full-year extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits.
The White House has also signaled it will continue to promote the rest of the president’s American Jobs Act — even though the bulk of it appears destined for the dustbin.
There also will be assorted new initiatives sprinkled into the State of the Union Address — with Obama already pointing to proposals such as a new tax break for companies that bring jobs to the United States and an end to subsidies for companies that ship jobs overseas. That’s the kind of initiative Obama ran on four years ago but that he has had a hard time getting through Congress, regardless of who has been in control.
The payroll tax cut seems to be the one area where the GOP could theoretically cause some heartburn for the White House, but the administration doesn’t think Republicans have the stomach to hold it up again after Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) caved on the two-month short-term deal in December. That deal was backed by Senate Republicans and Democrats, and Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have privately acknowledged the political peril of letting the payroll tax cut lapse.
The White House, of course, will hope to score a few more legislative victories before campaigning begins in earnest this summer. Administration officials have pointed to several possible areas of compromise, including visas for high-skilled workers and a highway funding measure.
Carney has repeatedly stressed that the president wants to work with Congress, but that he isn’t going to sit and do nothing while Republicans obstruct his nominees and block his jobs proposals.
Officials have said the president would be amenable to taking on bigger issues, including a grand bargain on taxes and spending this spring. But that would require Republicans to show more flexibility on taxes than they have to date.
However, optimism is running in short supply on Capitol Hill for passing much of consequence.
A senior Democratic aide said running against Congress is only natural when Congress has record-low popularity heading into an election year.
“I think what you saw with the recess appointments is that they are fed up,” the aide said of the White House.
That means lawmakers should expect many more executive orders and other administrative actions.
Democrats, meanwhile, support having the president beating up on Congress — but want him to emphasize the Republicans in Congress lest they also get tarnished.
“I think he should run against this do-nothing Congress,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a recent CNN interview. “We have missed an opportunity, and much of it because they want to obstruct the initiatives of the president or to work in a bipartisan way with him, with us, to get the job done.”
In the meantime, expect the president to hold firm against Republican efforts to roll back automatic spending cuts to defense or extend the Bush tax cuts. Those are his chief bargaining chips heading into what appears likely to be one of the most significant lame-duck Congressional sessions in history after the November elections.
Republicans, of course, point the finger of gridlock at Obama and Congressional Democrats, given that dozens of House-passed bills are stacked up in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
“We’re going to be relentlessly focused on jobs this year,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. “If the president is only interested in partisan gridlock at the expense of jobs, that will be evident to the American people.”