Doctor Cleveland's picture

    What Tools Does Obama Have Left?

    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, Treasury,  and 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?



    As long as he controls the votes of 34 senators, he can do as he pleases.

    He just doen't please to do so.

    He is perfectly happy to break the law when it suits him,


    You're right to say let's forget about what Obama could do if he were a leader, and concentrate instead on what he could do with the exercise of the power already granted to him by the Constitution.

    But that uncovers an immediate problem. Where he is able to act according to his own beliefs and values, without the constraints of Congress or of public opinion, his actions speak louder than any words. 

    • Obama is hell on whistleblowers
    • He loves war to the point that he makes new ones rather than getting out of old ones
    • He rewards the people who caused our economic mess and lets HAMP languish
    • He arrests US citizens and holds them indefinitely without charge
    • He lets corporate criminals prosper and throws marijuana smokers in jail…

    And the list goes on.

    Your post presumes that he would like to "do better" if only he could. There are many things he could do (and stop doing) to make things better - read Krugman, Bernstein, deLong, Baker and others. 

    But Doc, what if he thinks he's already doing just right?

    My post doesn't presume anything of the kind, or it wouldn't have spent most of a paragraph asking you to hypothesize that he does.

    (And OMG, who is this Krugman you speak of? How have I gone so long without hearing of his words? Please.)

    If you prefer, imagine that he (and Biden) resign tomorrow in favor of your Fantasy Lefty Dream President. But President Krugman-Pelosi-Sanders is going to face the same problems that Obama has now. And the magic of true belief isn't going to make those problems go away.

    So, what have you got? What does "act according to his beliefs and values" actually mean?

    OK, I agree that Red Planet missed an important aspect of your post, but he still answered it indirectly, by pointing out several things Obama could do if he were given that spine and was visited by the sagest sages. Those wouldn't solve all of our problems, but they would be a improvement. Furthermore, it would be a lot easier to defend him against the apathists, which I am still wont to do.

    (P.S. My spell-check wanted to change apathists to Baptists.)

    Didn't intend to offend, Doc. My reference to Krugman, et al, was just a way of noting that lots of pretty smart folks, more knowledgeable about the workings of government than I am, are giving good advice along the lines of your request. DeLong has a nice set of specific suggestions today regarding financial policy personnel changes, for example. These guys do it better than I can.

    You ask, "What does 'act according to his beliefs and values' actually mean?" Let's think about it.

    Legislation involves compromise, public speech involves politics, so let's assume that those may not be the most promising areas in which to divine the President's beliefs and values. Indeed, in your post, you implore us to set them aside and focus on what the President can do, all on his own, in his role as the Chief Executive.

    Since he can do pretty much what he wants as Chief Executive, it is in that role that we see most clearly who he is. Let me turn my list around (h/t VA) and say that he could do the following:

    • Pull out of Iraq at the end of this year, saving many lives and a great deal of money.
    • Rapidly wind down in Afghanistan, saving many lives and a great deal of money.
    • Pull support of the Libya operation, saving a great deal of money.
    • Encourage whistleblowers.
    • Instruct the Justice Department to get aggressive about prosecuting Wall Street crime, and to stop wasting time prosecuting victimless crimes.
    • Use HAMP for real, to quote Doctor Cleveland.
    • Stop it with the black ops incarcerations.
    • Instruct Panetta to reduce DOD expenditures by $100 billion annually, starting now (above and beyond current war-fighting).
    • Instruct all financial regulatory agencies to get tough on Wall Street, using the tools they already have.
    • Encourage the Fed to set an inflation target of 4-5% annually and work hard to get it.
    • Enourage the Fed to try another round of quantitative easing.
    • Stop pushing trade deals that encourage shipping jobs overseas; start enforcing the (admittedly too few) provisions in current trade deals that are labor- and environment-friendly.
    • Etc.

    What does "act according to his beliefs and values mean?" It means, at least in those areas where he enjoys unilateral executive power, that he should do what he thinks is right. Of course, one would assume he already doing so. That's why what he is doing is so disturbing.

    Obama has the power to do the things on this list, and much more, without asking Congress or the American people, but he is consciously doing just the opposite, and has been since he took office.

    Okay, so I am sitting here, not cleaning veggies like I should be, catching up on the DAGbloggers, reading your blog, reading the comments... and damn it I get to comment 2, (obvs yours) and you make me laugh so damn hard my Irish Coffee flew out of my nose, thanks a damn bunch Doc... I actually mean that, laughing is good for the soul. Although I don't know if I can finish my coffee now. President Krugman-Pelosi-Sanders... Now I'll see if I can finish reading the rest of this!

    Jeez, doctor, I was hoping you'd offer some answers.

    OK, one power that remains totally in his hands is commander-in-chief. Job 1: Fire Panetta the next time he opens his mouth. Show folks the president is really serious about winding down the wars that nobody except the military brass has any taste for any more.

    The status-of-forces deal with Iraq states that all U.S. troops will leave by Dec. 31. But Panetta has picked up right where Gates left off -- pressuring the Iraqis to "request" an extension for 20,000 or so troops. The Iraqi people hate that idea, as do a majority of Americans. But politicians (and the military lobbyists who fund them) are warming to it. Obama should declare which side he's on.

    We know which side Panetta is on, after he declared the cut proposed under the debt-ceiling trigger (up to $50 billion a year) could cripple the military. Out of a 2012 budget of $700 billion to $1 trillion, depending on what you count in. That's maybe six per cent -- but at a time when three major military operations are being wound down!

    On second thought, Obama, don't even wait for Panetta to open his mouth again. Fire him now. 

    Not that $50 billion a year from defense will make a significant budgetary difference. Just that it's time the military acknowledged the free ride is over; the U.S. simply cannot afford to outspend the entire rest of the world on armaments, and continue fabricating new enemies to justify doing so.

    Plus, fewer young people will die pointlessly.

    Okay, for you, ac, I'll try to give it a start:

    1. Use Justice to clean up Wall Street. Instruct Holder that because Congress won't act, it's on him to make the public believe that Wall Street has gotten what it wants. There isn't time for a major trial before the election, but there should be high-profile investigations of major financial institutions that have not abided by the law, and especially of those who continue to play fast and loose. Institutions that took bailout money should get special attention.

    While Obama is at it, he should instruct the SEC and the IRS to become much, much more aggressive. Republicans will howl, but how much more could they obstruct things. And the public will cheer.

    2. Mass recess appointments. Obama could signal his new hard-ball attitude, and begin getting Congress back in line, by appointing *all* of the hundreds of appointees who are being held up, starting with everyone in Treasury, Commerce, the SEC, and the IRS. The Congress has fallen down on its job, the people's business is not getting done in a time of crisis, and the Constitution gives Obama this specific power for more or less exactly this reason.

    Congress will be enraged, but get over it. And instead of dickering with them over this or that nomination, and how upset they'll be if Obama uses a recess appointment in a specific case, Obama should just turn it into wholesale recess appointments. Yes, those appointments expire at the end of the next Congressional session, but if Congress doesn't clear a replacement, Obama can just make another set of recess appointments that the Republicans will like even less.

    3. Use HAMP for real. The one big tool that Obama has left to deal with the Not-as-Great Depression is the one he's been reluctant to use: HAMP. But he doesn't have much else left, so he should use whatever's left in the bag. And Hamp is authorized through the end of 2012. He should shoot for at least 4 million modified mortgages, to keep people in their homes. It's the right thing to do for the economy and for those homeowners.

    Other thoughts?


    Well regarding #2

    The Senate adjourned for more than a month without going into a formal recess, preventing President Obama from temporarily appointing heads of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other agencies.

    As they have done with recent breaks, congressional Republicans used procedural moves to block Obama from making so-called recess appointments that circumvent Senate confirmation.

    Oh well. 

    The key here is "Arkush interprets this to mean" - if one read the entire article, the only thing that is clear is that the whole issue of recesses and appointments is unclear. 

    Moreover, there doesn't seem to be a disagreement between the two houses. One would expect the House to pull the maneuver, but not the Senate where the Dems have the majority.  But the Senate Republicans were able to use Senate rules to get the job done.  So it would appear the "case of disagreement" doesn't exist.

    How's that for nuance.

    Disagreement is in the eye of the beholder...If Harry Reid adjourns the Senate, and the House objects a (as they have the right), Obama declares them disagreeable, and makes the adjournment decision.

    Then he makes recess appointmenst (as if...) and it's up to the agrieved party(ies) to take such remedy as may be available.

    It's probably not justiciable.

    Of course, if that miserable [edited] had the balls to do such a presidential act, he would have done it when there were unquestioned recesses (like after the lame duck session in 2010) so we are really pissing into the wind (how's that for style?)

    You two--jolly and AT, the Sultan of Style and the Nabob of Nuance--crack me up.  I have an image of you two as Felix and Oscar-like (from the old TV show and movie "The Odd Couple") roommates from awhile back.  If there is ever a FTF gathering of dagbloggers, I bet you two could pull off a hysterically funny comedic gig. 

    "oreo"? o_O

    I know you're not one to stand on formality or anything, but even for your particularly relaxed style of writing that feels like crossing a line...

    Yeah, I agree on that, VA.  Jolly, I hope you'll consider retracting that part of it.  You're funny as hell w/o crossing lines like that.

    Bearing in mind that I never heard anyone but a black person use the expression, (which does not, per se, exclude the possibility that it is a racist slur directed at white people), I will cheerfully revise and retract, in the spirit of good fellowship, and substitute "punk", which is more evocative and more closely tracks my opinion of the esteemed occupant of 1600 Pa. Ave.

    Wow, really, Oreo? I'll tell you something jollyroger, what you wrote there is nothing more than any run of the mill racist would write.

    I don't know enough about HAMP to judge whether it can be made to work. It sounds like it presupposes a certain amount of good will and co-operation from mortgage lenders, so that could be its fatal flaw.

    Congress is in recess now, so Obama could go before the nation and announce the appointment of everyone whose nomination has not been acted on for at least, say, a year. People would understand that as sheer congressional obstruction. He could declare that he'll recess-appoint all other nominees once they too pass their anniversary date. The House would likely block that act by staying in nominal session until the 2012 election, but he'd at least get a whack of appointments done. (The founding fathers didn't foresee recess appointments being used this way, but they also didn't foresee the amount of obstruction that occurs today, where a single senator can block any nominee. WTF?)

    As for putting Wall Street perps in the dock, go for it. Presumably some investigations are at the ready-to-lay-charges stage. Lax as the financial regulations were, it's inconceivable that major violations didn't occur. Years late, but better than nothing.

    I still think bringing the troops home -- ideally, all the troops -- will resonate most with voters. Just about everybody now realizes the Bush wars were pointless, wasteful exercises. Obama can rightly claim to have done the job the U.S. set out to do (i.e. kill bin Laden). He'll have to hope Karzai can avoid being overthrown at least till election day, but I can't see even a Taliban takeover persuading voters the U.S. should have stayed.

    Oops. I just now noticed what Trope wrote. OK, scratch No. 2. Republicans will keep that up until the 2012 election.

    Oops. I wrote that before roger chimed in. Put No. 2 back on the table. 

    Oops. Double post. Sorry.

    I do not think "oops" means what you think it does.

    "Mild apology, surprise or dismay," my Merriam-Webster says. Yeah, that's what I was going for.


    Take No. 2 back off the table since someone thought just because the Senate had a Dem majority that this would lead to a disagreement between the two houses.

    Perhaps Obama should try painting the town red? He needs to take a devil-may-care attitude because the GOPer's aren't showing much interest in his attempts at bipartisianship.

    Then again, his term has been marked without a stated goal to achieve by his administration, Congress or the public ...  no challenge. For instance, he could have made a Kennedy proclamation that within 10 years the public would enjoy socialized medical coverage and challenge Congress to make it happen. Kennedy never made it to the end of his first term, but his vision of landing a man on the moon came to fruition before the decade was out. Americans love a challenge that borders on the impossible. He's failed to deliver us the impossible dream to achieve.

    Not something the White House can do.  But if the Justice Department, in the course of its monitoring/investigations of possible wrongdoing on Wall Street, should come upon evidence justifying prosecution of a bigwig, and initiates such an action, most of the public will probably think Obama was behind it and credit him.   Or at least credit him for appointing an Attorney General willing to hold bad guys on Wall Street accountable.  

    He could appoint Cordray to the CFPC via a recess appointment.

    He could persuade Reid to introduce a major jobs bill in the Senate, paid for with partial repeal of the Bush tax cuts, make the Republicans prevent an up or down vote, and make a big thing about it as an issue that clearly separates the two major parties.    

    He could use some of that vast reservoir of campaign cash he's been bringing in to hire a snappy PR firm to produce and begin airing a commercial spot showing people who kept, or got, jobs on account of his and Congress' stimulus initiatives.  And begin to build the case for doing more of that as one of his key campaign proposals, noting that he would need a Congress supportive of passing such legislation and asking voters to give him one.  

    He could ask the relevant agency or agencies to recommend a list of specific actions citizens and businesses can take to voluntarily reduce carbon emissions.  Maybe create some website where individuals and businesses who can show they took one of these voluntary steps can register and get sent a creatively designed, attractive "saving our planet" sticker or seal to post prominently at their place of residence of business or on their bike or motor vehicle.  And connect that with going back to making the case for carbon emissions legislation and/or renewed tax credits for homeowners doing the right things, to create financial incentives to fast forward the carbon emissions reduction process we need to move on.

    AD's right about introducing legislation that Republicans are certain to obstruct, like a jobs bill that would be paid for by a tax hike on the "job-creating" top 2 per cent. Then if the targeted number of jobs don't get created, point out to voters exactly why.

    He might try telling the truth - about the world, about America, about Republicans, about who owns and runs America.  Who knows?  Truth.  It's worth a shot.

    Dan, you forget ... Obama is hell-bent on bipartisanship. Telling the public the god-awful truth would be rubbing the GOPer's noses in the shit the left on the carpet for everyone to step in ... he ain't gonna do that.

    And the GOPer's aren't going to admit to their failures and will fight tooth-and-nail to convince their base Obama and the Democrats are rewriting history to make themselves look good at the GOPer's expense.

    The Democrats should have been airing the GOPer's dirty laundry back when it happened when it was fresh. Now, it's a water under the bridge moment and the average person would only give it a fleeting thought and move on.

    The only way the truth will matter is if the economy collapses and puts us all in the same boat regardless of political affiliation. Then again, it will be open to interpretation by whomever controls the government.

    I don't know, every now and then again he lashes out at them. The surest way for that to happen is for the Republicans to continue to blame everything on him. Of course, he'll very likely do it too late to be effective, à la Kerry and swift-boating.

    Obama makes Kerry look like he reacted immediately to the swift-boating criticisms. As for Obama lashing out ... he might float like a butterfly, but butterflies don't sting.

    I am under the impression Obama is slow to anger ... very controlled emotions. But anger is what the public really needs in the political arena at this moment. For some strange reason I can't explain, I have found people respond to anger about what's wrong more than they do to passionate pleas for doing the right thing ... anger is an attention getter - be it right or wrong. The GOPer's know this and it's evident by their faux anger over trivial matters, like the debt ceiling issue.

    I suspect Obama is playing a game with the GOPer's ... I only wish I knew what the game was and the rules to it.

    I'll comment at 1am Wednesday when we know who won in Wisconsin.

    Meanwhile here's  Brad Delong's suggestion

    (Make) personnel changes  to put qualified people who saw the world as it was in the summer of 2009 into the key economic jobs

    o Laura Tyson or someone like her to Treasury Secretary (recess appointment, acting ,whatever)

    o Larry Summers or someone like him to Fed Chair (recess appointment,acting ,whatever)

    o Alan Blinder or someone like him to CEA Chair (recess appointment etc.etc)

    o Christy Romer or someone like her to Assistant to the President for Economic Policy.


    The need is for several pro-stimulus and otherwise progressive senior advisors who are internally assertive and effective in making their case to the President, who have outside standing, and who are good at making the case publicly because O and B can't make it all by themselves.

    There are many progressive economists out there who have been saying and writing sensible things.  For those who haven't served in government it's hard to know whether they would be assertive enough and otherwise figure out quickly how to be effective.  There's lots of competition for the President's ear on economic policy and it doesn't do much good to believe the right things if one can't get heard and taken seriously.

    None of this will happen unless Obama himself concludes that he needs a different, and better, mix of internal advice on economic policies than he has had to this point.  Goodness knows there have been plenty of people with standing out there publicly making this point and suggestion, since early in his Administration. 

    Yes, if he's going to compromise he needs to know what he's giving up

    Let's face the matter squarely.

    As a commercial people should

    We've learned no end of a lesson

    It will do us no end of good.



    Wisconsin is a gut check. The country is not hungering for a strong liberal lead from Obama ....... but it's not ready to endorse the Tea Party. Yet.

    This will be unpopular here, but Obama should just keep on being Obama. If he now recasts himself as a tribune of the people, rather then generating additional votes (from whom?) it will be seen as a desperate, and insincere, change of policy. His strong suit is being an "adult" no drama Obama. It's too near the election to recast himself as LBJ so he's got to continue being Barack Obama. Which is fine with me.

    Replace Geithner, yes. He is only popular with people who wouldn't consider voting democratic. Don't worry about getting senate approval, no one will whom we ought to want in that position. And we don't want Geithner there. Give him several fulsome attaboys and throw him under the bus. Leave the Department under the nominal leadership of whomever is Geithner's highest ranking subordinate.

    But appoint Brad Delong as a special assistant to the president to actually run it. The President is entitled to direct the Treasury and if Mitch McConnell intends to abuse the Senate's right to advise and consent, Obama is entitled to make an end run around it.

    Maybe I'll write more elsewhere, this is enough for a comment in someone else's blog.

    Obama could offer the Republicans their cherished repatriation tax holiday in exchange for an extension of the payroll tax cut, unemployment insurance, and 100 billion in funds for Jared Bernstein's FAST proposal (fixing, retrofitting public schools).

    It's a compromise that is hard to swallow, since the repatriation holiday is going to hurt revenue long-term, but it is probably the only thing that will bring the GOP to the table. And it is the only thing that will help avoid another painful recession.

    Obey/Cho, please comment under a consistent username. Thank you.

    Good question, Doc, but I think that you're running down the wrong path.

    It's August 2011. The election is just over a year away. The Republican primaries will begin in a few months. Even a president with a sterner backbone and a less dysfunctional congress wouldn't get much done at this point.

    Obama will employ the tools at his disposal to try to get re-elected and to try to get a few more Democrats elected.

    And that's where the bully pulpit comes in. It's not about weekly radio addresses. It's about giving people a reason to vote for him and for other Democrats.

    My original comment went on to address the reason, but I decided to turn it into a post:

    Good question, Doc, but I think that you're running down the wrong path.

    I think Doc is raising a critical, not to mention welcome!--question, of how the White House intends to try to govern and get things done between now and the election.  I don't think that can be disentangled from the need to give people positive reasons to vote for him and for Democrats next fall.  Both the optics--does Obama look as though he is busy and doing things rather than low energy and maybe depressed by the weight of what he's up against?--and the substance of what he's able to get done matter a great deal, I believe, for the chances for successful presidential, and inevitably Congressional, campaigns. 

    In part this disagreement may be one of semantics, because I see proposing legislation the Republicans will block, especially as we get closer to the election, as part of both governing and campaigning.  (elaborated on in a comment on your current thread on Why Vote for Obama?)  Proposing and fighting for legislation that will be blocked I see as part of governing because governing effectiveness depends critically on how you are perceived by the public, your congressional supporters, and your adversaries, and those in turn depend on what they see as your values and what you are trying to do.  If you're too vague and too ambiguous and too mushy on who you are and what you're trying to do, that can hurt as well as help, and I think it is on balance probably hurting Obama at this point.

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