Obama in Battle with a Hostile Congress

If Congress is now entirely in the hands of Republicans, the American president still has up his sleeve all the assets that the Constitution guarantees him to keep taking action until the end of his term.

Before leaving for Hawaii to celebrate the holidays with his family, Barack Obama sent a message to the Republicans, indicating that in 2015, he cannot be counted on to assume the role of the “lame duck,” a label used in the United States to designate a president without any power at the end of his term. Admittedly, Democrats lost control of the Senate in the midterm elections in November. Congress is now entirely in the hands of the Grand Old Party, but the American president still has up his sleeve all the assets that the Constitution guarantees to keep taking action: starting with executive orders, a tool that did not take long to use.

Just a few weeks after the the loss of the Senate, Barack Obama adopted a text that paves the way for the legalization of 5 million undocumented immigrants: a countermeasure to the refusal of Republicans to work on a major reform. The method infuriated conservatives, who then accused the president of acting like “a monarch.” The truth is that Republicans will not be able really to oppose these measures in order to avoid alienating the Latino vote.

Barack Obama also took initiatives in the fight against climate change. In Beijing, he reached an agreement with China for a quantified emission reduction of carbon dioxide by both countries. The new leader of the Republicans in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, referred to it as an “unrealistic plan.” Nevertheless, the agreement is here, and it would be embarrassing to deny it. A few weeks later, Washington surprised the whole world by restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. These spectacular actions are thought of as the announcement of the White House’s method in the coming months.

During his last press conference of the year, the president mentioned the second weapon at his disposal that he will not hesitate to deploy: the veto. If ever Republicans try to go back on the emblematic texts adopted since 2008, “I suspect there are going to be some times where I’ve got to pull that [veto] pen out,” Obama warned. He mentioned two projects, which seem fundamental to him: first, “Obamacare,” the massive health insurance bill, which is the biggest part of his budget to date. Its implementation was certainly painful, but it remains an important milestone of his vision of America. Many Republicans hate it, but it will be difficult for them to repeal it. The other subject that the man in the Oval Office will fight with tooth and nail for is the environment and all the new standards he has put in place since 2008: for example, those made on power plant emissions.

Obama did not only send warnings, but he also reached out to the conservatives by proposing common interests. He insisted on a comprehensive tax reform that would make corporate taxes “fair.” He wants to lower the rates in exchange for the elimination of the numerous loopholes and the convoluted provisions that make it possible for large corporations to pay very little or no taxes at all. He wants to, once and for all, get rid of the ability of large corporations to have overseas accounts that allow them to avoid paying taxes. He suggests devoting this exceptional earmarked revenue to building infrastructures. Some of them have indeed started to suffer from worsened obsolescence. Many lobbies have up to now succeeded in blocking these proposals, but in the coming 18 months, the White House has a very strong argument to convince Republicans to compromise: They need to have a budget bill by the 2016 election season. If they continue to obstruct for the next two years, how will they convince Americans to trust them?

The fact remains that any resistance will be heated. On the Republican side, there will be anti-Cuba, anti-environment and the anti-government supporters, but Barack Obama will also have to deal with the more recent hostility of the left wing of the Democratic Party that rebelled in December. At the time of the vote on the last budget, Republicans inserted a provision in the text that considerably softens a regulation of the Dodd-Frank law on derivatives. The most extreme left wing of the Democrats did not understand why the White House agreed to swallow the pill and remain bitter about it.

As for the facilitating elements, there will be the economic situation. The recovery, which has been slow since the end of the great recession, is now accelerating. The gross domestic product grew 5 percent in the third quarter. Wages are finally starting to increase. We could say that the labor market is approaching full employment. Consumer confidence has returned to its 2007 level, but behind these flattering numbers – partially due to the fall in oil prices, which increases purchasing power – there is a certain disillusionment.

According to a survey from The New York Times, published in December, only 64 percent of Americans still believe in the “American dream” — defined as the possibility of becoming rich through hard work. That’s less than what it was in the depth of the great recession, when 72 percent still believed in it, and it is the lowest number in 20 years. One American out of 5 thinks that he will remain in debt for the rest of his life.

On a different note, the recent case dismissals, which benefited police officers who killed blacks, have outraged a large portion of the population, who sees it as a “license to kill” people of color. Many leaders of the black community wish that Obama would strongly intervene in the matter. The latter explained that, even if he is also furious deep inside, he plans on remaining “the president of all Americans.” But, if he thinks in terms of posterity, the president will also have to tackle those two societal issues.

Points to Remember

Two months after the midterm elections, Barack Obama seems to have decided to use all the weapons he has at his disposal to impose his will on the Republican camp on a few emblematic topics.

Although he doesn’t hesitate to push through, he also proposes common advances to his opponents, insisting for example on a comprehensive tax reform that would make corporate taxes more “fair.”

The White House has a strong argument to push Republicans toward a compromise: they need to get to the 2016 election season with a budget bill.

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