In our system of government, the president simply does not have the legal or institutional authority to approve sweeping economic legislation on his or her own. The number of voters who don’t seem to fully understand this is disconcerting.
Greg Sargent flags a remarkable quote from a Democratic official in Pennsylvania, where President Obama will visit today to talk about the economy.
“Enough with the soft approach,” said Corey O’Brien, a Democratic Lackawanna County commissioner and early backer of Mr. Obama. “He’s got to say, ‘I’m in charge, and I’m going to get it done with or without Congress.’ ”
“People are furious,” Mr. O’Brien added. “Everybody here is petrified they are going to lose their jobs tomorrow, and I mean everybody.”
Just to be clear, my point is not to pick on Corey O’Brien, an Obama supporter. He’s very likely frustrated and concerned, and knows plenty of people in his community who are equally frustrated and concerned. I don’t blame them in the slightest — given the larger economic circumstances, their anxiety is well justified.
But look again at the line he wants to hear from Obama: “I’m in charge, and I’m going to get it done with or without Congress.”
Based on nothing but my own perceptions, this seems like a fairly common sentiment. The public likes to think of the President of the United States, no matter who’s in office, as having vast powers. He or she is “leader of the free world.” He or she holds the most powerful office on the planet, making life and death decisions every day. If the president — any president — wants a proposal to create jobs and grow the economy, it must be within his or her power to force one into the Oval Office, if necessary, through sheer force of will.
This notion has appeal. It’s also badly mistaken. There are some modest steps a president can take — and Obama is taking them through the White House’s “We Can’t Wait” campaign — but it’s simply not possible for a president to strengthen the economy “with or without Congress.” Obama has no such option; the American political system doesn’t work this way.
This creates a dramatic political dilemma for the White House. Americans hate Congress, overwhelmingly dislike Republicans, and the notion that the GOP is sabotaging the economy just to undermine Obama is widely believed. And yet, the president may suffer politically because many voters expect Obama to succeed — despite unprecedented Republican obstructionism — by “getting it done with or without Congress.”
Indeed, as we discussed last month, this actually creates an incentive for Republicans to be even more irresponsible — if GOP officials believe the public will blame the president for the breakdown of the American political process, even if it’s not Obama’s fault, Republicans will keep up their destructive tactics. The unstated goal is to put a simple-but-misguided concept in voters’ minds: Washington stinks, Obama’s the president, we want a better Washington, so must need a new president.
Voters’ understanding of the process is severely limited, and many Americans likely fail to appreciate the role Congress must play in policymaking. The challenge for the president isn’t to teach Civics 101 to the populace; that would take too long. The task at hand is communicating who deserves credit for fighting to make things better, and who deserves blame for standing in the way.