In any other advanced democracy, Barack Obama would be out of office or hard at work assembling a coalition government. Under our system, he is (or should be) devising ways of using executive power to set national policy in the teeth of opposition from the new Congress.
This paradox of American politics ought to spur us to think about the peculiarities and perils of our system. These thoughts are spurred in part by the release of a new paper, "The Power of the President" by the progressive Center for American Progress detailing ways that the President can govern by executive order over the next two years. (The Center's paper is not the only helpful offer of advice Obama has received, though it may be the most constructive. Consider David Broder's suggestion that Obama save himself by orchestrating a crisis with Iran.) The paper's authors are quite cheery about the road ahead: "Concentrating on executive powers presents a real opportunity for the Obama administration to turn its focus away from a divided Congress and the unappetizing process of making legislative sausage. Instead, the administration can focus on the president's ability to deliver results for the American people on the things that matter most to them," they suggest. "Making legislative sausage," of course, is at the heart of most visions of actual governance. The prospects, however, are for little governance over the next two years, and a large number of foreign-policy initiatives abroad and executive orders at home.
There's some evidence Obama has already started down this road—witness his high-profile demand that the new Congress continue our bipartisan Russia policy by ratifying the New START Treaty. As someone who admires Obama far more than his enemies, I hope the President succeeds in this strategy. If he is skillful and lucky, he is on track to be re-elected despite the potentially crippling losses his party suffered on Election Day.