Obama vs. the Governors

As President Obama confronts a resurgent Republican Party, he finds himself fighting a two-front war.

In Washington, Obama is already colliding with a conservative GOP House majority determined to slash spending and regulation. But the president also faces multiplying conflicts with Republican governors. The breadth and intensity of these confrontations dwarfs the level of tension between Bill Clinton and a previous generation of conservative GOP governors in the 1990s. Indeed, it's difficult to think of another president who faced as much resistance on as many fronts from governors in the opposite party as Obama is encountering today.

This lengthening list of disputes says something about Obama's agenda, and something about the new Republican governors, many of whom will arrive in Washington this weekend for the National Governors Association annual meeting. Mostly it speaks volumes about the continuing polarization of American politics.

Republican governors came out swinging against many of Obama's initiatives at the opening bell. Moderates Charlie Crist in Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California supported Obama's 2009 economic-stimulus package, but almost all of their GOP colleagues lobbied congressional Republicans to oppose it. After the stimulus bill passed, several GOP governors (along with a few Democrats) rejected the increased unemployment aid it offered, arguing that the strings attached would force them to increase state spending.

On the same grounds, Republican governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin have also renounced federal money to build high-speed rail. Seventeen states--all but two headed by Republicans--are suing to block Obama's effort to regulate carbon emissions. GOP governors led the drive to resume offshore drilling after Obama suspended it following last year's BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. From the other direction, the president did his part to heighten tensions by suing Arizona over its immigration law and conspicuously siding with public-employee unions in their struggle with GOP governors (the most notable so far led by Wisconsin's Scott Walker) over collective-bargaining rights.

The mother of all disputes, though, remains over health care. Twenty-seven states--all but two of them boasting Republican governors and all but four GOP attorneys general--are suing to dismantle the law's foundation: the mandate on individuals to purchase insurance, most with help from government subsidies. The majority of Republican governors are also resisting the law's provisions requiring them to maintain state spending on Medicaid and to establish exchanges where the uninsured can shop for coverage. Put it together and it's fair to say, without drawing any moral equivalence, that health care reform is facing more-extensive resistance from conservative states than any federal initiative since Brown v. Board of Education.

Even Clinton didn't collide so often with GOP governors. He blocked their push to convert Medicaid into a block grant (an idea likely to resurface this year). But he worked with them on 1995 legislation limiting unfunded federal mandates. During the welfare-reform debate, they sided with Clinton, opposing the attempt by Newt Gingrich's House conservatives to require states to deny benefits to women younger than 18 who had children out of wedlock. Republican John Engler, then Michigan's governor, famously declared, "Conservative micromanagement is just as bad as liberal micromanagement."

This time, the governors are aligning much more consistently with their fellow Republicans in Congress in resistance to Obama's priorities. GOP consultant Nick Ayers, who ran the Republican Governors Association during the president's first two years, argues that it's because Obama's agenda poses such a financial threat to the states. "I don't think in [our] lifetime governors have been so aggressive, but they can't afford not to be," Ayers says. "The fiscal structure of their states is under attack by his policies."

But one senior Obama administration official, who also had a close view of Clinton's interaction with Republican governors, contends that ideology is trumping interest for the governors in many of these new disputes. Health care reform, for instance, asks states for no new financial contribution to expand coverage through 2016 and only relatively small participation thereafter; because 60 percent of the uninsured live in the states where a Republican holds the governorship, their residents would receive the most new federal aid if the law survives. "One had the sense in the mid-1990s that conservative governors were doing whatever was in the best interest of their state," the senior official said. "This time, the Republican governors appear determined to make an ideological point, even if it costs their state a great deal."

Whatever the governors' motivations (one man's posturing, after all, is another man's principle), their unreserved enlistment into Washington's wars marks a milestone. It creates a second line of defense for conservatives to contest Obama even after he wins battles in Congress. It tears another hole in the fraying conviction that state capitals are less partisan than Washington. And it creates a precedent that is likely to encourage more guerrilla warfare between Democratic governors and a future Republican president.

American politics increasingly resembles a kind of total war in which each party mobilizes every conceivable asset at its disposal against the other. Most governors were once conscientious objectors in that struggle. No more.

This article appeared in the Saturday, February 26, 2011 edition of National Journal.