Is this an outrage, a defiance of democratic legitimacy? Is it a welcome sign of courageous presidential leadership? How does the coming duel between legislative and executive branch fit into the design of our Constitution?
The answer to the last question is easy. What’s coming will be painful, frustrating, and dangerous—and it will illustrate a constitutional malfunction unforeseen in 1787. The country will survive, and it’s possible it can even make progress—but at tremendous cost in polarization and missed opportunity. The country is like a car driving with the handbrake on: Any movement forward will be accompanied by smoke and internal damage.
So we might profitably put a six-month moratorium on paeans to the wisdom of the Framers. The problem of divided government is a bug, not a feature, and the Constitution itself provides no guidance on how to work around it.
Obama’s response may or may not be outrageous, but it is not novel. Remember 2006? If ever a midterm election delivered a verdict about the “will of the voters,” it was that one. A single issue—the disastrous war in Iraq—dominated election rhetoric nationwide, and candidates who opposed the war won almost everywhere.
President George W. Bush’s response? He escalated the war the people had just repudiated, with the “surge” of 20,000 new troops into Iraq and extended tours for those already there. That worked brilliantly, rescuing the Baghdad government from imminent collapse—or, wait, it postponed inevitable failure long enough for it to land in Barack Obama’s lap in 2014.
Judging the answer is, mercifully, not part of my remit. But the example shows how, for better or worse, the Constitution created a government consisting of three high places—president, Congress, and Supreme Court—and the lay of the land looks very different from each.
To Republican members of Congress, a sweeping electoral result like this month’s is the most important thing in the world. They are legislators, and they think in terms of legislative control; in a sane system, they tend to think, they would be quoting the late Lord Shawcross of Friston, who (unwisely, as it turned out) celebrated the British Labour Party’s 1945 victory by telling Parliament, “We are the masters at the moment, and not only at the moment but for a very long time to come."
From the vantage point of a president—particularly a second-term president—the world looks different. He has two years left on an eight-year project. Congressional leaders are outraged that Obama proceeded with the U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change during his long-scheduled trip to Beijing, despite the election results. But the idea that a president would scrap months of talks—as part of a multilateral negotiating process designed to last at least until 2015—because of a change in Senate control must seem, from the White House, not just wrong but (to quote the great Vizzini), inconceivable. Similarly, the president has a war to run and a wide variety of policy initiatives to steer through the bureaucracy for the remaining two years of his term; crimes to prosecute, secret counterterrorism operations to supervise, medals to present, etc. Congress, however hostile it may be, must seem largely irrelevant to much of his day-to-day work.