WASHINGTON – The Republicans won control of the US Congress; but Obama has no intention to negotiate anything meaningful with them. He could and he should. But he does not have to. There is no law that forces his to cooperate with his opponents if he thinks this is a bad idea. The price that America pays for this impasse is complete paralysis.
Weak government by design
The American Constitution was not designed by people who wanted a strong, effective government. It was designed by people who wanted to preserve liberty. Their concern was not an effective executive. Their concern was to prevent tyranny. For this reason they designed a peculiar system with independent power centers that check on each other.
Of course, assuming sensible people in control of both the White House and Congress, these two power centers will come to an agreement on key issues. The Congress will pass legislation that the President will sign it. In turn, the President will promote legislation he wants through supporters in Congress who will craft bills that will be passed and then signed by the President.
Divisions mean paralysis
This being the good case scenario, what if we do not have sensible people in control of Congress and a belligerent President who does not care to deal with them? Well, then you have what we have now: paralysis. Since 2010, when the Republicans took control of the House, an essential half of the legislative power, almost nothing got done in America.
And do not expect any improvements now that the Republicans, exceeding many expectations, took control of both the House and the Senate after the recent November 4 elections.
Even though voter participation was embarrassing small, (about 36%), a significant majority of those who decided to show up cast a vote against President Obama and his Democratic party.
But this victory, while impressive, does not mean a lot when it comes to governing. The Congress cannot enact legislation without the President’s signature. And you can count on Obama to veto anything he does not like. The Congress can override his veto; but only with super majorities.
For their part, many Republicans have an unpromising feisty attitude. They want to take the President to Court because they believe he exceeded his powers when he decreed (after the electoral defeat) that millions of illegal immigrants should not be prosecuted.
On the other side of the divide, how did President Obama react to this resounding political defeat? Badly. He simply ignored it. At least in public, no rethinking, no recalibration, no offer to work together with a new, definitely more conservative, Congressional majority hostile to much of his programs. No humility, no recognition that perhaps his policies are not in sync with the nation.
And so, what’s next? Sadly, probably not much. The President will try to enact policy through an expansion of his executive powers, essentially trying to govern by decree. But there are limits to how far he can go with this.
The Republican Congress will engage in demonstrative legislation, just to make a political point. They will consciously pass laws that they know Obama will veto, but they will try to convince the public that Obama is wrong and they are right.
America needs serious reforms
The truly sad thing is that America needs serious reforms. Wise centrists in both parties know this. America needs a major tax reform and drastic entitlement reform. And, of course, it needs to overhaul the semi-disastrous Affordable Care Act, an ill-conceived medical insurance reform. Obamacare helped some, but it created far too many problems for millions of Americans.
Of course, President Obama could decide to cooperate with this new Congress and use the last two years of his second and last mandate to work seriously with the Republicans in order to pass all these critical reforms.
And why do I say that it is up to the President to lead? Well, because he is one office holder with enormous powers. The Congress has an equally important institutional power. But its power is scattered among too many individuals and factions.
Obama has only two more years left in office. It would be of great benefit to America if he chose to use this time to work constructively with Congress with the goal of addressing America’s systemic problems. Some of the solutions the Republicans favor may go against his beliefs. But he should negotiate in good faith.
Can the American system work?
Otherwise, expect more of the same in Washington: paralysis, rancor and partisan attacks.
As I said at the beginning, the complicated institutions of this Republic can work only if we assume that at least a majority of the elected office holders will be guided by common sense and by a genuine desire to foster the common good.
If there is no way to overcome deep ideological divisions, it may be the case that this long experiment in self-government may have become unworkable.