A few months ago, I wrote that there were few real parallels between the Republican congressional takeovers of 1994 and 2010.
Maybe I was wrong.
In 1995, when the government shut down, a seemingly weak and humbled Bill Clinton was given a golden opportunity to look strong. In 2011, with its looming budget shutdown, Republicans seem interested in giving Barack Obama the same chance, and might be critically underestimating the power he currently has.
Obama is a bit of an enigma. It’s difficult to judge him politically. On paper, he’s won most of his battles. Things like health care reform, the stimulus, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – all successes. Watch the news or visit town halls and he’s a befuddled failure, derided by a huge portion of the country. One thing is for certain – the man has an amazing ability to absorb punishment and still come out swinging.
His office, however, is not an enigma. The power of the President of the United States is quite direct and brutal when it wants to be. Power works in two or three specific ways. There’s personal power and there’s secondary power. The presidency is designed in such a way that, most of the time, secondary power can more than make up for a lack of personal power.
It’s that kind of power that usually gives the executive branch the position, time and patience to come out on top in games of chicken with the legislative branch, and that’s what government shutdowns are.
Look at Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, who is currently embroiled in a game of chicken with his legislative branch. People are lobbing all kinds of accusations at him, but nobody is calling him weak. Mark my words and place your bets – Walker is going to win this fight. His victory will have nothing to do with fiscal policy, conservative politics or moral affirmation. Simply put, he’s the governor and they aren’t. He can wait Democrats out. He can outlast the protests. He doesn’t even have to work that hard. It’s the Senate Democrats and protesters that have to wake up and channel all that energy, and that can’t last forever.
Walker has power, the resources to use it efficiently and the will to back it up. So will Obama. It goes beyond personal politics. We’re now dealing with the pure, everlasting power of the office.
Should Republicans succeed in forcing Obama’s hand, it will fundamentally alter the power of the presidency, and that’s why Obama can and will wait. The presidency is the most exclusive club in the world, and presidents want to keep that power intact for those that came before and those coming after. There’s no faster way to the round-file of history than handing over a fundamentally weakened White House. It’s better to lose an election than to lose that kind of force.
In 1995, Clinton waited, and won. Never mind that Newt Gingrich throwing a fit over seating arrangements on Air Force One helped. All that did was hasten the inevitable. It’s Congress that has to go home and explain everything. It’s Congress that has to tell its constituents why their long-planned family trip to the Smithsonian was met by a closed door.
Most importantly, its Congress, the House in particular (which has the responsibility of writing the budget), that has to get elected every two years. Even with one four-year term, a Presidential legacy is secure. I don’t know how many Congressmen have served since the First Congress, but I know there have only been 44 presidents, and most of them are easy to remember.
The other great advantage Obama has over Congress is unity. The White House speaks with exactly one booming and far-reaching voice. Love him or hate him, when the president talks, people listen. Congress speaks with multiple voices, and even with overwhelming majorities, keeping them all on message is like herding cats. Over time, their message becomes fragmented. Public opinion will swing back to the White House because its message is always less confusing and more cohesive.
Anger only sustains for so long. It’s tiring. Blame games only work in the short term. Both Republicans and Democrats want the trains to run on time. Results always triumph over rhetoric. The anger of the American voter is fairly indiscriminate at this point, and brand loyalty is at all time low. What will happen when Republicans, who promised results, hand over a government more broken than before?
Congress will have four days to sort all this out after its week-long recess. It’s in everyone’s best interest to find a compromise, lest the GOP get the same lesson in power that they got in 1995.
Remember, it has nothing to do with ideology, parties or elections. This is force on force, and one force is practically, historically and personally more powerful than the other.