Politically, President Obama has never been weaker, after losing both House and Senate. At the same time, he has never talked tougher. There is a connection between the two.
Obama recently told Democratic lawmakers that he's going to "play offense" in coming months. Coming from a man with a history of occasional trash talk — "I'm LeBron, baby" — it's tempting to dismiss this as just more chatter. What is Obama doing, going on offense after his party suffered such a resounding defeat in November?
Conservative writers John Podhoretz and Jonah Goldberg argue the president just can't resist trolling Republicans. Liberal Paul Waldman essentially agrees, admiring Obama's ability to "come up with a new idea every couple of weeks to drive [the GOP] up a wall."
It's true the president seems to take real pleasure in annoying his adversaries. But there's a serious strategy behind it.
With no real political clout on Capitol Hill and a job approval rating that has stayed mostly below 50 percent for a long time, Obama is trying to leverage the power he has left to force his agenda on the Republican majority. His big talk, executive actions, and outlandish proposals are the best ways he has to control the debate in Washington.
"The reason he is being aggressive is that he knows he can generate a response," says a well-connected Republican strategist. "When he does an executive order, what he is trying to do is generate a response so that the entire conversation is about what he did — so that he has defined the agenda."
Likewise, when Obama, facing a newly-empowered conservative Congress, uses his State of the Union speech to propose a tax plan the liberal columnist E.J. Dionne calls "genuinely redistributive," he is trying to dictate the terms of the debate with a powerful adversary. Of course Obama knows his plan is anathema to Republicans, but if they debate the president on his terms, he makes progress.
"It works if we let it work," says the Republican strategist. "When Obama says something, the question is: Is that the most important thing we should be talking about now, or should we be setting the agenda? Is it something that we have to immediately engage and begin talking about? Which means he has set the agenda."
Obama's tax proposals, on the whole, have less than zero chance of success on Capitol Hill. But with the State of the Union as a launch platform, with Air Force One to fly him around the country promoting the idea, with a press to take Obama's gambit seriously, the president can multiply his strengths, which right now are the core constitutional powers of the presidency and the bully pulpit.
If anyone doubts Obama's intentions, just listen to senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer explaining the president's economic proposals on "Meet the Press." "Some of them are going to be legislative proposals Republicans may not love, but we'll push them on them," Pfeiffer said. "Some of them will be executive actions." In any event, Pfeiffer pledged the White House will use "every lever we can" to get what Obama wants.
Republicans should take such a strategy very seriously. In the 2006 midterm elections, the lame duck George W. Bush lost the House and Senate. If there was any message from the election, it was that Americans were sick and tired of the Iraq war, which was going very badly. And yet somehow Bush shaped the political conversation in early 2007 to focus on how big a surge of troops was needed in Iraq. Bush leveraged his fundamental constitutional powers as commander-in-chief and his White House megaphone to frustrate the new Democratic majority.
That doesn't have to happen this time. Republicans have the mojo and the momentum. They just got elected, have fresh faces in their new majority, and have several ready-to-go agenda items that had been bottled up in the Senate under now-former Majority Leader Harry Reid. If they are united, and if they are smart, Republicans can push Obama into a defensive crouch.
But the GOP should always beware the president. Even a weak, lame duck chief executive has the power to make things happen in Washington. Obama appears ready to use his to the fullest.