Friday Talking Points -- Obama Picking His Fights

Welcome back, everyone, to our weekly political roundup! We've been away for three weeks, two of which were taken up by our annual year-end political awards columns, and last week was way too close to New Year's Eve to think straight (that's our excuse anyway), so we just tossed up a frivolous column to fill the space. But it's a new year, so it's time to reapply nose to grindstone and get down to brass tacks and all those other Puritan work-ethic metaphors.

I have to say, while the Republicans have been having their three-ring primary circus, President Obama has been looking better and better. Both in comparison to the Republican field (of nightmares, so to speak), and also because Obama's been making progress on his own.

The best news came today, as the official unemployment rate came down to 8.5 percent. This is one of those things that actually filters out of the wonktastic universe (in which we all live) to the American-at-large Joe-Sixpack public. I would be willing to bet that most readers of this column already knew that this Friday was Unemployment Number Release Day, right? Whereas the vast majority of Americans simply don't pay such close attention to politics -- but they will indeed hear that 8.5 percent number in the next few days.

It is, of course, too soon to tell, but this will likely help Obama's job approval polling numbers -- which are already on the rise. If the trend of improving employment continues, it could quite possibly yank the rug out from the entire campaign Republicans have teed up for this year -- so look for Republicans to try and convince America that things aren't really getting any better, over the next month or so. In other words, Republicans will be cheerleading for the immediate failure of the American economy, for base political reasons. So pop some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy!

Adding icing to the cake for Obama was the news that the American auto industry seems to be fully recovered. Another feather in Obama's cap that Republicans have been screaming about since the bailouts happened -- and another issue Republicans are going to find themselves on the wrong side of, especially in such crucial electoral states as Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.

Obama -- backed up by Senate Democrats -- picked a fight in December and came out of it smelling like a rose, while Republicans came out of the fray smelling like the stuff you spread around the roots of roses in order to help them grow. Ahem. What's more, we're going to fight this battle all over again right after the State of the Union speech, as Congress reconvenes. The extension of the payroll tax holiday was truly a perfect issue for Obama, since Republicans had to resort to pretzel logic for why they were (1.) against a tax cut, and (2.) demanding that middle-class tax cuts be paid for, when they've never done so for millionaires' tax cuts. Once again, we're going to fight round two of this cage match in February -- and Obama's going to win that round, too.

Oh, and while this column was away, Obama ended the war in Iraq. All-around, a pretty good couple of weeks for the president. Which, as previously mentioned, has already begun to help him in the job approval polling.

Did we miss anything? Oh, a baby stuck its hand in the presidential mouth during a holiday photo-op, which was downright adorable.


Actually, we did miss something -- which we intentionally held back for the awards section.

Obama just picked a fight with Senate Republicans -- even though he didn't even need to (at least, on the level he chose to pick this particular fight). This was a bold move, and should be seen as the president hauling off and smacking the Republican Party upside the head... and then taunting: "What are you going to do about it, huh?" Which, it bears mentioning, the left has been waiting for ever since he was elected.

Obama made four recess appointments this week, one to head the newly-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and three to the National Labor Relations Board. The N.L.R.B. had dropped to two members (out of five), and thus could not even form a quorum to get anything done. The C.F.P.B. head has been blocked by Senate Republicans who have sworn (in writing) that they'd never vote for any candidate for the job, because they hate the fact that the agency was created and they are still in a monstrous (and childish) snit over this fact.

Both of these fit in beautifully with Obama's re-election strategy. Obama is fighting for consumers and for workers; Republicans are fighting for Big Banking and Wall Street. Obama has adopted the campaign slogan "We can't wait!" and this also is a perfect fit for his actions this week. By now, even hermits living in caves have figured out that Congress is seriously dysfunctional (the percent of Americans who approve of the job Congress is doing is actually lower than the percent who think America should become a communist nation, for example). Obama is basing a large part of his campaign on what he can manage to accomplish without dealing with the congressional gridlock, and this is quite likely a winning political strategy.

But the real bit of glee for Democrats (even the progressive, populist, and liberal wings of the party) is that Obama could have avoided the magnitude of this fight -- and he didn't. Instead, Obama deliberately chose the most confrontational way possible to accomplish his goal of appointing his nominees. That, to be blunt, is quite a difference from the bipartisan-seeking Obama of yore.

Obama could have chosen three methods of making these appointments (this gets a little technical). He could have made the appointments during the gap between "the first session of the 112th Congress" and the "second session" -- which happened on January 3rd, as is mandated in the Constitution. This tiny window of time has been used by previous presidents, all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt. Or, Obama could have used his constitutional power to force Congress into adjournment, and then immediately made his recess appointments. Instead, Obama deliberately (one day after the session gap, just in case the point wasn't obvious) threw down the gauntlet, and declared that the pro forma sessions of the Senate were -- de facto and de jure -- actually a recess. Since the Constitution is actually silent on what constitutes a "recess" this becomes a separation-of-powers issue which may be eventually fought out in the courts.

But the whole point is -- he didn't have to do it this way. Obama -- quite intentionally, and quite publicly -- smacked the Republicans across the face and dared them to make an issue of it. Obama feels he's on the winning side of this issue, both legally and politically -- and in the court of public opinion.

For this breathtakingly bold action -- the first time we believe we've ever used that phrase for Obama in his entire presidency -- Barack Obama is most definitely the Most Impressive Democrat of the Week.

The 2012 election just got a whole bunch more interesting.

[Congratulate President Barack Obama on the White House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


OK, just to show that we're not sycophants here, we've also got to award Barack Obama at least a (Dis-)Honorable Mention for signing the defense bill that Congress laid on his desk. This bill codifies some "anti-terrorism" practices begun under George W. Bush that some future president will likely have to atone for (one would like to hope, at any rate), such as indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without trial or even being charged with anything. This slipped under a lot of people's radar (no thanks to the media missing it almost completely), but we did indeed notice. Obama tried to soften the blow by issuing a signing statement declaring he'd be judicious in his application of these powers, but that does nothing to rein in any future presidents from doing as they see fit. Which is, to put it mildly, problematic.

But the Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week award goes to a local Washington D.C. city councilman, Harry Thomas Junior. While Thomas did the right thing this week, by both resigning his council seat and by pleading guilty in front of a judge, this in no way excuses the fact that he was in front of that judge for embezzling $350,000 of government money -- and cheating on his taxes, to boot. Not only does he become the first D.C. councilman charged (and convicted) of a felony, he also now has a MDDOTW award to hang on his wall.

For shame, Councilman, for shame.

[Contact Councilman Harry Thomas Junior on his official contact page (while it still exists, better hurry), to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Volume 192 (1/6/12)

Obama's bold move on the recess appointments will likely be Topic A for politicians this weekend (or perhaps Topic B, behind the New Hampshire primary). So Democrats should be prepared!

Obama has brilliantly put Democrats into a political position that Republicans are more used to occupying -- that of taking the high road and making sweeping statements, while your opponents are forced to get way off into the weeds of a "process argument" that makes people's eyes glaze over.

So grasp this opportunity! Relish the fight! Here are but a few humble ideas of how to accomplish this, for Democrats everywhere to consider using this weekend.


   Fighting for Main Street

We're going to try to keep these short and sweet this week. Always lead off with the highest road you can travel. In this case, it's easy.

President Obama, by appointing a chief of the new consumer watchdog agency, has shown he is more than willing to fight for the middle-class consumer's rights. The Republicans, on the other hand, are showing -- once again -- that they are more interested in kowtowing to the big banks on Wall Street. Obama fights for Main Street, Republicans fight for Wall Street -- it's as simple as that.


   We can't wait!

This has become a rallying cry for Obama's 2012 campaign, and it needs to be picked up and echoed by Democrats everywhere, because it certainly does resonate against a do-nothing Congress.

You know what? Republicans are arguing, essentially, that America should just put everything on hold and wait until they control both houses of Congress and the White House. Well you know what? We can't wait! America simply cannot wait that long to get some things done.


   Up-or-down vote!

I've been pushing this one for a long time, and I am still astonished that in press releases from prominent congressional Democrats, they fail to use this phrase. This is something which sounds eminently reasonable and fair to most Americans, which is why Republicans have always gotten such good mileage out of it in the past.

President Obama wouldn't have had to make these recess appointments if Senate Republicans would allow the president's nominees a simple up-or-down vote. If Republicans were doing their constitutional duty and allowing such votes, we wouldn't be where we are today. Instead, they hide behind a filibuster -- which is not in the Constitution, by the way -- and block a man who received 53 votes in the Senate from being confirmed. Give us an up-or-down vote on nominees, and the president won't have to make any more recess appointments.


   The real power grab

Republicans will be flinging this particular phrase at Democrats this weekend, so be ready for it!

Power grab? Did you just say 'power grab?' Excuse me, but the real power grab happened when over 40 Republican senators sent a letter to the president stating that they wouldn't vote for anyone to be confirmed to be the head consumer watchdog -- because they hate the fact that Congress approved this bureau in the first place.

That is unprecedented. That is an abuse of power.

That is trying to undo a law by killing an agency before it is formed. And that, my friend, is the real power grab here. Obama was merely reclaiming the power vested in him by the United States Constitution to staff up the executive branch of the government.


   Get back to work!

Nancy Pelosi is certainly one to strike while the iron's hot. Today, she got Democrats back to Washington, to work on the year-long extension of the payroll tax cut. Assistant House Minority Leader James Clyburn tried to make a motion to start negotiations with Republicans, but they wouldn't even allow him to speak on the House floor. So much for being "in session," eh? Pelosi has a fantastic press release on this, if you hadn't heard about it -- chock full of most-excellent talking points. Here's the best one, from the Minority Leader herself:

We were told with great vehemence yesterday that Congress was in session. That's why we went to the floor today to call upon the conferees to get to work. The American people are crying out for jobs. They want us to work together. We can do that. I don't know what the Republicans are afraid of. Where are they? They are telling us that they were in late in December so they can't be here in January? What is this one month on, one month off? The American people want jobs. We have a job to do. We can't wait.



This is the only talking point in the bunch that really gets down in the weeds of the process argument. It should be reserved for use, in exasperation, when some Republican fulminates about how Obama is "trampling on the Constitution" or some other such folderol.

You know what -- when I was a kid, we didn't care what it was called, when we went out on the playground and had a good time, we were happy. Recess is what we called it, and recess is what it was. Right now, Democrats in the House are in Washington begging Republicans to get back to work. Republicans are out having fun on their own particular playgrounds, and not here in D.C. doing the people's business. You keep harping on about the Constitution, well I'd like you to show me exactly where in the text of the Constitution it defines the word 'recess.' I'll even help you out -- don't bother looking, because the Constitution is silent on what a recess is. So please, before you accuse people of 'trampling on the Constitution,' you might want to take ten minutes and actually read it, first. It's a fascinating document, as I'm sure you'll agree... after you read it, that is.


   Dubya's legal team weighs in

I saved this one for last. Just because.

So far, one Republican senator has agreed with President Obama's ability to make recess appointments as he just did, and I'd like to quote from an editorial which ran in the Washington Post back in 2010, as advice to President Barack Obama.

Quote: What's the point of these phony 'pro forma sessions?' They serve but one purpose: to prevent the president from exercising his constitutional authority to make recess appointments... the Senate cannot constitutionally thwart the president's recess appointment power through pro forma sessions... The president should consider calling the Senate's bluff... The alternative will likely be greater gridlock in Washington. This practice will inevitably become the standard operating procedure, and the recess appointment power could become a virtual dead letter -- undermining what the Founders viewed as an essential tool for the effective functioning of our government. Unquote.

This editorial also references The Federalist Papers and the Senate Judiciary Committee's writings. Oh, did I mention that it was written by two high-ranking officials from the Justice Department of George W. Bush? Sorry, I should have mentioned that.


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