The failure of the Keystone XL pipeline bill to get the needed 60th vote Tuesday night kept the nation from getting a glimpse of what governing is going to look like in Washington for the next two years. But it's only a delay.
President Obama didn't need to use his veto pen this time. Yet there is no doubt that the president who promised an American transformation is ready to make the shift from hope and change to government by veto. A White House that started out decidedly uncomfortable about even threatening a veto will soon find that the pen is one of the most important weapons left in a Democratic arsenal badly depleted by the midterm elections earlier this month.
Obama is a latecomer to the veto wars. In his first two years, with Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress, the White House was wary of even talking about vetoes. Then-press secretary Robert Gibbs repeatedly danced away from questions about them. When the president did use the veto, it was sparingly, reluctantly, and out of public view. In his six years in office he has vetoed only two bills. If you except James Garfield, who served just six months in office before his assassination in 1881, that is fewer vetoes than any president in the 161 years since Millard Fillmore occupied the White House and issued none.
Obama's two vetoes attracted almost no attention. The first one was not even recognized as a legitimate veto by Congress. That came in December 2009. Congress passed a bill to fund the Defense Department and pay for the ongoing wars. But to give the president time to study the full spending bill, it also passed a continuing resolution to keep the Pentagon operating for one week. Obama didn't take the extra time, immediately signing the spending bill and rendering the CR moot. Nevertheless, the president sent the CR back to Congress unsigned, contending he had "pocket vetoed" it. Congress did not recognize the legitimacy of that act.
Obama's second and most recent veto was Oct. 7, 2010. His target was a bill long sought by the banking industry, the Interstate Recognition of Notarizations Act. On its face, the bill simply said that states and federal courts would have to recognize notarizations by notaries public from any state. But timing was everything. The bill was rammed through at the very time banks were battling a major scandal in which mortgage companies and banks were "robo-signing" foreclosure documents without reviewing them. The banks hoped this bill would give them some protection from almost-certain lawsuits. But the White House, declaring that "consumer financial protections are incredibly important" and warning of the bill's "unintended impact," refused to go along. The House failed to override the veto on Nov. 17, 2010.
Neither veto suggests the flood of vetoes likely when Republicans take over the Senate in January. A glimpse comes from the threats issued by the White House in the four years since the GOP gained control of the House. After the 2010 election, the White House's initial reluctance to talk about vetoes gave way to frequent threats. Obama warned of vetoes of sanctions against Iran, partial government funding bills that would restore funding only to certain government functions during the shutdown in 2013, the defense spending bill of 2013, repeal of the tax on medical-device makers included in Obamacare, Republican cuts in taxes on small businesses, payroll-cut extensions, weakening of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and policy on the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
But there were no further vetoes, in large part because a dysfunctional Congress, divided between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate, all but stopped approving meaningful legislation and sending anything to his desk. That will change in January, and the White House is braced for legislation they expect to be so objectionable that vetoes will be inevitable. That was what happened with President Clinton. Clinton issued no vetoes in his first two years, when his party controlled Congress. But in his next six years, he vetoed 37 bills, 36 by regular veto and one by pocket veto.
Perhaps the best model for Obama was Clinton's veto of welfare reform in 1995. Republicans and some Democrats warned him it would be political suicide for him to veto such a popular measure. Republicans thought they had him just where they wanted him. But he defied the pundits, and made his veto very public along with his demands for changes. Congress could not override his veto and was forced to give him the changes he wanted, allowing Clinton to claim the final product as a success in his reelection campaign.
Clinton's 37 vetoes left him about normal for two-term presidents—but far behind the record-holder, Grover Cleveland. Cleveland, who often worked through the night studying legislation, issued 414 vetoes in his first term and 170 in his second, according to records kept by the Senate. That is topped only by Franklin D. Roosevelt's 635, but FDR had more than 12 years in office.
More recent presidents have been less willing to veto bills. George W. Bush had only 12 in eight years; George H.W. Bush issued 44 in his one term; Ronald Reagan had 78 in two terms; Jimmy Carter issued 31 in four years; Gerald Ford had 66 in only two-and-a-half years; and Richard Nixon issued 43 in his six years. Other 20th-century presidents who faced hostile Congresses include Dwight Eisenhower, who issued 181 vetoes, and Harry S. Truman, who vetoed 250 bills, placing him behind only Cleveland and FDR.
Obama is unlikely to match Truman if only because gridlock will not end just because the Senate flips parties. The lack of a needed 60th vote in the Senate will keep many bills off of Obama's desk. But with the expected rush of legislation off the GOP wish list, he can be expected to quickly reach double figures in vetoes. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, has predicted that much of the legislation will target the way the federal government manages national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. All are likely to draw vetoes from a president who would like to build his legacy on climate and environmental issues.
CAP also recalled that Clinton was effective not just in his use of vetoes but in his threatened use of vetoes, citing a study by University of Florida professor Richard Conley, who found that Clinton issued veto threats on 140 bills and "was generally successful in halting the Republicans' agenda or wresting policy concessions from the majority leadership."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.