President Woodrow Wilson was affectionately known as, “the schoolmaster in politics,” and “the professor.” President Barack Obama, a great admirer of his progressive predecessor, might better be called, “the professor above politics” given his aversion to working with Congress. However, when he committed to Republicans in this year’s State of the Union address to seek out their ideas and “work with you to make this country stronger,” there was reason to think he really meant it, notwithstanding similar pledges in the past.
Before they entered politics, both Wilson and Obama taught the U.S. Constitution to university students. Wilson the scholar derided the Constitution’s checks and balances as an obsolete impediment to national progress, and the Congress as a diffuse, aimless and ineffectual body run by a group of petty committee barons. What government needed, he wrote, was centralizing party leadership and direction. He thought the British parliamentary system was the most perfect form of government.
When Wilson became president, he embraced that role as leader of the nation and his party. He traveled frequently to the Capitol to meet with his party’s leaders and committee chairmen on the details of his legislative proposals, passing all of his New Freedom agenda in his first two years. Moreover, Wilson still holds the record for the most appearances before joint sessions of Congress to make the case for his foreign and domestic policies.
President Obama has been less engaged, even when working with his own party leadership when they controlled both chambers. But he still scored significant legislative victories during those first two years in office. Since then, he’s had to deal with opposition Republicans controlling at least one house, and their resistance has made him even more disengaged.
In previewing his State of the Union message to the cabinet last year, Obama vowed to use his pen and phone to act unilaterally on his priorities if Congress did not go along. In the actual address, he reiterated that intention: “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” He did just that on several occasions over the past year, culminating in his controversial post-election order deferring the deportation of some 4.5 million illegal immigrants.
In that same address, the president said, “Tonight this chamber speaks with one voice to the people we represent.” Whether intentional or not, Obama, the only voice in the chamber that evening, brought to mind something Woodrow Wilson, the scholar, once said: “There is but one national voice in the country, and that is the voice of the president.”
Wilson believed that a president, using that national voice, could mold public opinion and leave Congress no choice but to go along with his plans. As president, he subsequently learned from his League of Nations fight with the Senate that going over the heads of Congress and taking his case to the people in speeches around the country was no guarantee of success.
Obama has also experienced the limits of the rhetorical presidency. In this year’s State of the Union talk, he admitted he had not delivered on his 2008 campaign vision of a single, post-partisan United States of America, but said he still believed “we are one people,” and that “together we can do great things.”
Nevertheless, he seemed more willing to recognize the legitimacy of partisan differences: “Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.” He welcomed arguments between the parties, but added, “If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of the country.”
Why think anything has really changed? First, Obama is looking for a legacy that lasts longer than ephemeral executive orders. Second, congressional Republicans know they need to accomplish some things for the country to be competitive in the 2016 elections.
By convening two bipartisan congressional leadership meetings at the White House since the fall elections, the president has moved toward that new approach. Both parties stand to gain by using more such sessions as a launch pad for bipartisan governance.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.