Americans want action, President Barack Obama said Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, and if a recalcitrant Congress won’t act, he will.
In a city where gridlock is a way of life, that might sound encouraging. But unfortunately it just another tired partisan yell in a building where the yelling rarely takes a break.
All presidents lay out ambitious agendas in their State of the Union addresses. The struggle then becomes rallying support among congressmen and senators for those initiatives. Obama said bluntly Tuesday night that, if he cannot get Congress to act on his agenda, he’ll bypass the legislative branch altogether and enact his proposals through executive orders.
“America does not stand still and neither do I,” Obama declared.
Obama’s declaration was received with thunderous applause from the very legislators whose power he pledged to usurp. All part of the gamesmanship.
It’s easy to score rhetorical points by beating up on Congress, whose collective approval rating hovers in the teens. Hardly a day passes without another story lamenting the “gridlock” that keeps one well-intentioned program after another from advancing.
But the fact remains that we are a divided, philosophically fractured nation. Congress is not the cause of the fracturing, merely a reflection of it.
In a one-party echo chamber like Massachusetts, we hear endlessly about how obstinate Republicans stand in the way of all the good works government strives to do. That same rhetoric is found in the gerrymandered districts where Republicans hold the majority, and Democrats are the demons ruining the country.
Indeed, the Republican Party itself is in the midst of a schism between its traditional elements and an activist tea party wing that finds old-school Republicans indistinguishable from Democrats themselves.
What we see in Washington is a built-in design feature of government that has gone to an extreme. Gerrymandering districts is a well-honed practice meant to give political favor to one party or another. It has been developed to a degree that would make its ingenius 18th century inventor, Elbridge Gerry, rub his hands in glee.
Our system of government is supposed to make it difficult to make sweeping changes in law such as redesigning the delivery of health care and the insurance that pays for it. These changes affect millions of lives; enacting them should take a great deal of deliberation and consensus-building.
Obama told us Tuesday night he wants action on a number of issues: He wants immigration reform, an increase in the federal minimum wage, a new tax credit for low-income families without children and expanded access to early childhood education.
If Congress won’t give him what he wants, Obama says he will take it, with a stroke of his executive pen.
All of these issues deserve robust debate. If they truly have merit, let their supporters convince the doubters of their worth. It is important for these debates to take place, so that Americans see for themselves how their representatives act.
That’s the function of a legislature in a representative republic. If we had wanted to be ruled by an “imperial president,” we shouldn’t have bothered to throw out King George III.