Politics & Policy

The Corner

Obama’s Complaints Invariably Presume that He Gets to Set the Congressional Agenda

Politico reports that Obama is still irritated by the Republican party:

“I’ve always shown myself willing to compromise — principled compromises that would still advance the interests of the American people,” the president remarked in the interview conducted Monday. “What we’ve seen within the Republican Party has been a refusal even to engage on a whole range of issues like climate change, for example, that are vitally important. The issue here has never been both sides stuck in a corner, unwilling to meet in the middle.”

Obama says this sort of thing a lot.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with compromise. But, as usual, Obama is misstating at what point the imperative to compromise kicks in. It is sensible for two parties to compromise if and when they both want to pass a law or to make a change. Suppose, for example, that both Congress and the White House hoped to sign a new trade with India but disagreed a little on the details. In such a case, it would make perfect sense for both to give a little in pursuit of a common end. If, having agreed upon their mutual aims, one side simply refused to engage, it could fairly be said to be behaving irrationally.

But this isn’t quite what Obama is suggesting, is it? Rather, this president seems to believe that once he has proposed action in a given area it is unreasonable for the GOP to simply say “no.” Thus Obama believes that congressional Republicans were being recalcitrant when they refused to give an inch on gun control. Thus Obama supposes that the House has been declining to do its job when it has entirely rejected his coveted “infrastructure spending.” Thus, Obama considers the Senate to be obstinate because it will not move on his preferred climate-change legislation. In this way of thinking, Obama “knows” what is important and what “needs” doing, and anybody who disagrees is an obstructionist.

As we can see by the manner in which the press covers federal politics, this attitude is clearly a seductive one. And yet, on closer inspection, it really doesn’t make much sense. Given that the Republican party does not want more federal gun-control legislation, that the House does not want to spend money on infrastructure, and the Senate does not want to pass cap-and-trade, there is no good reason that they should act upon his entreaties at all. Unless one believes that it is incumbent upon Congress to respond in at least some way in response to the president’s stated agenda — and it’s not — one has to accept that in a good deal of cases we are going to (and should) see stasis.

Oddly enough, the president’s presumption toward action does not work the other way around. If Paul Ryan were to go to Barack Obama tomorrow and say, “I want to repeal Obamacare,” nobody would slam Obama for “refusing to compromise” when, inevitably, he said “no.” Likewise, if John Cornyn called the White House and pitched his plan for national concealed-carry reciprocity, we would not hear widespread gnashing of teeth when the president explained that he was opposed to the idea in toto. On the contrary: It would be accepted that there are certain things that Obama does not want to do while in office, and that he is under no obligation to do them even in small pieces.

That, of course is fine. Indeed, it is how the system is supposed to work. But it would be nice if the courtesy were extended in the other direction.

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