In a burgeoning debate over whether Barack Obama is “finished” as a president able to work his will on the country, Ezra Klein makes an important point about the frustrations Obama has experienced this year. They started a long time before the screwed-up rollout of HealthCare.gov:
An overwhelming win in the 2012 election wasn’t enough for Obama to get a big budget deal with House Republicans. The GOP’s fear that it would become demographically irrelevant and Sen. Marco Rubio’s endorsement wasn’t enough for Obama to get an immigration reform bill past House Republicans. The Aurora and Newtown shootings weren’t enough for Obama to get a popular gun-control bill past House Republicans (or even Senate Republicans).
You can ascribe these failures to whatever culprit you want — party polarization. Republican extremism, Democratic dogmatism, the White House’s weak legislative strategy. The result is the same: Obama was unlikely to pass any more big-ticket legislation long before anyone ever tried to log into HealthCare.gov. That’s a huge blow to any administration, and it’s a particular blow to this administration, which believed strongly that immigration reform could be the final piece of Obama’s legislative legacy.
For that reason, a congressional loss in 2014 won’t have the same effect on the Obama administration that the 2006 loss had on the Bush administration. In 2006, Democrats captured both the House and Senate from Republicans, effectively closing off the legislative mechanism to Bush. In 2014, the most Republicans could do is further secure their ability to block Obama from doing anything. Republican gains in Congress would mostly serve to entrench the status quo, not, as was true with Bush, upend it.
Ezra goes on to suggest that Obama has a lot he can and probably will do that doesn’t require congressional approval. But the earlier point is worth underlining. A whole lot has been written about the decision made by Republicans late in 2008 to fight the new president on almost every initiative he offered. But it’s clear a similar decision was made, or at least confirmed, in late 2012 to make 2013 another Year of Confrontation, at least after the “Fiscal Cliff” issues were resolved.
The entire Obama presidency has been a testament to the power a minority party can exercise with a foothold in Congress and an unlimited determination to say “no.” That’s one reason why breaking the filibuster for executive-branch and most judicial nominations was so important: it demonstrated that this will-to-power in the minority party could not be exercised in a reckless fashion without consequences. But the basic dynamics were not changed by HealthCare.gov’s problems. In 2008 and in 2012, the GOP dedicated itself to total obstruction, and all the talk of “rebranding” or moving to a Tea-free GOP was just that.