Monday, August 08, 2011

What Tools Does Obama Have Left?

cross-posted from Dagblog, with discussion thread here.

I've thrown away the woe-unto-ye-Barack-Obama post that I started after the debt ceiling debacle, because lots of other people have written it, and truth be told I've written it already myself. Let's take for granted that Obama needs to put up more of a fight against the Republicans, and that compromise and sweet reason aren't working. Here's the question: what to do now?

Let's skip "use the bully pulpit!" and "talk to the American people!" We've all heard those, and to be frank I don't see the weekly radio address turning this mess around. I'm interested in the question of what he can actually get done, rather than what message he should send. Let's also rule out "be tougher" and "don't compromise" as too vague; what would "being tough" actually entail? And let's save the argument about how he'll never do the right thing, because he doesn't want to for the next thousand and six discussions about that.

Let's imagine that the ghosts of Lincoln, Kennedy and FDR appear to Barack Obama tonight, tell him it's time to save the Republic, and put a ramrod up his spine. He wakes up tomorrow determined to stop those conservative maniacs and take the country back, just the way people with blogs are always saying he should. My question is this:

When he wakes up tomorrow, all fiery and determined, what specific steps are available to him? What can he do?

He's not going to be able to get anything through the Legislature, with an angry opposition party controlling the House and a bunch of "centrist" Democratic Senators focused on appeasement. No matter how much he wants to, he can't get laws passed, because it turns out that the executive branch is not in charge of legislating.

And he's still going to have the problem of his appointees being locked up in confirmation limbo, with a huge pile of judicial and sub-cabinet-level appointees stuck in the Senate after two and a half years. He can't make that problem go away just by wishing.

So what can the President of the United States do in this ugly position with the powers that the Constitution grants him: the power to make recess appointments, the oversight of the justice department, supervision of the federal bureaucracy (including all of the regulatory agencies), and the power to veto legislation? What can Obama do with the powers specifically invested in him as President, rather than in his unofficial Presidential roles as party leader and bully-pulpiteer?

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