Why Republicans Are Freaking Out at Obama's Go-It-Alone Challenge

The president's State of the Union address last night was nothing short of a masterpiece - inspiring, substantive, on the mark. While the pundits try to read tea-leaves about this being the president's attempt to hold the Senate or improve his own poll ratings though, to understand the true message behind the speech one needed do no tea-leave reading. One only needed to listen to the speech. The president was, at once, speaking to the American people and to Congress. He channeled the American people's frustration with Congress with a combative yet jovial tone: if Congress wants to be irrelevant, they could suit themselves.

Nowhere in his address was this more evident than when the president announced that he will sign an executive order raising the minimum wage paid to people working for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour. He is not king, and he cannot raise the minimum wage overall by the stroke of a pen, but he would use his executive power to make decisions on who the federal government does business with. Note the phrasing (from transcript):
In the coming weeks, I will issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour – because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.

Of course, to reach millions more, Congress needs to get on board. Today, the federal minimum wage is worth about twenty percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. Tom Harkin and George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10. This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It doesn’t involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.
The phrasing has transformed from the format of "Congress should do A, but if it doesn't, I will take action" to "I will do A, and if Congress wants to help, it should do more." The president is as fed up with Congress as are the rest of us, and his speech showed it.

This pattern was repeated throughout the speech: from voting rights to setting up MyRA (individual savings account backed by special bonds) and calling on Congress to follow it up by fixing the tax code, on educating the workforce and matching skills of workers to skills needed for work available, and connecting schools to broadband.

Some are calling this a reversal of tone from last year's call to action to Congress, but in truth, it is a follow-up. Last year, the president warned Congress that America couldn't wait around while Congress dragged its feet, and last night, the president announced the end of that waiting period. Last year, the president called for Congress to act, but said he would if it didn't. Congress failed to heed his warning, and now the president is acting.

To Republicans, anything the president does without allowing them to obstruct is, of course, part of a tyrannical monarchy destroying America. Also, Hitler. From Speaker Boehner flipping out at the president's mention of a pen and a phone to GOP members of Congress going completely bonkers over the president's use of executive power to sidestep their obstructionism, however, not all of it can be attributed to a few bad apples in the GOP running off their mouths.

There is a very good reason why Republicans "mainstream" and otherwise are having a heart attack over this: with this attitude, the president has captured the rightful outrage the American people have against Congress. And because Congressional obstructionism is seen (correctly) as largely a Republican fault, it would spell trouble for them if the president is able to capitalize on that anger. Republicans are now painted into a dangerous corner with no good choices: they could (a) cooperate on sensible things with the president and be skinned alive by their base, (b) do nothing and prove the president right as he ramps up an election-year agenda of taking and publicizing his executive actions in contrast with Congress and explain to the American people why their lives can't be even better, or (c) do nothing and sue the administration to try to stop the executive actions.

Doing (c) may be the most disastrous of all the options above for the Republicans (which probably means that's what they are going to do). It will allow the president and the Democrats to cast Republicans as super-obstructionists who not only will not help but will try to stop someone who is trying to help. And as with most challenges to executive power, in the absence of being able to pass a law clearly forbidding a given executive action, the challenges will also fail in court.

This president has always preferred to work with Congress - not simply because he's a nice guy but because changes made with the approval of Congress are written into law and cannot be reversed by a future executive. But just as war is the last resort to threats to national security when diplomacy fails, executive actions going over the heads of Congress (to the extent allowable by law) even if it displeases Speaker Orange is the weapon when a sector of Congress constitutes a real threat to the improving the lives of the American people.

Still, not so long ago, Republicans weren't so averse to a powerful executive, even a unitary one. Is the reversal solely because a black Democrat now sits in the Oval Office? That's most of it. But there is another part to this equation. Demographic trends, mixed with the GOP's failure to make itself anything but hostile to women as well as minorities of all stripes, Republicans are afraid, if not convinced, that the White House - the executive - is out of their hands for the foreseeable future. Their stranglehold on power is the House, thanks to gerrymandering. And so, their only hope to obstruct progress is just that, obstruct.

After all, if I'm right and Republicans are convinced that they have lost the White House for the foreseeable future, then we're not just talking about President Obama. We're talking about a possible future President Clinton, or another Democrat who will use the roadmap laid out by this president to club a future possible Republican House over the head. It may be this precedence they are trying to stop more than any possible action President Obama might take.

But they have exactly zero leverage on either count. So they can keep freaking out. The president, and rest of us, have work to do.

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