Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The pen and phone strategy

Over the last few years I've written about the various strategies President Obama has employed to deal with Republican obstructionism. As has been well documented, on the day the President was inaugurated in 2009, Republican leaders met to develop an opposition strategy. The one they decided on was to simply oppose anything and everything he tried to do - regardless of whether it included things they'd supported in the past.

Initially the President's response was to enlist conciliatory rhetoric as a ruthless strategy. The best description I've found of that came from Mark Schmitt.
One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict.
President Obama demonstrated that he was open to Republican ideas and invited them to the table to develop solutions to the challenges we face. This meant that he increasingly absorbed any pragmatic policies the Republicans had previously held and - in order to continue their obstruction - they had to paint themselves into an increasingly extremist corner.

Eventually on some issues a few Republicans became uncomfortable with those ideological extremes and started breaking away. That's when the President began to employ a strategy to develop a common sense caucus. That worked to get immigration reform through the Senate and created the possibility for a bi-partisan budget bill to be passed early this year after the extremists shut down the government.

And now comes the "pen and phone" strategy. Basically what President Obama is saying is that if Republicans won't work with him, he'll find the power to make changes via other means. The "pen" refers to his executive authority and the "phone" is all about marshaling the business community, nonprofits, state and local governments, etc. to do what Congress will not do. Recently I wrote about the innovation of working with the business community to achieve his goals in both foreign and domestic policy. Today Dan Pfeiffer wrote about the pen and phone strategy and highlighted how it is working on the issue of raising the minimum wage.
The best example of the president's philosophy for governing in a divided Washington is his effort to raise the minimum wage. Last year the president called for raising the minimum wage in the State of the Union. This caught a lot of pundits in Washington by surprise because there hadn't been much discussion of the issue in recent years. The president wanted to put it on the table even though he knew the legislative path was difficult, to say the least. What has happened since that speech is pretty remarkable: The president has launched a national movement to raise wages in this country. To begin with, he signed an executive order to raise wages for people working on new federal contracts. He has also has called on states, cities and businesses to do their part in the absence of Congressional action. And the thing is, folks are listening: From Maryland to Hawaii, states are raising their wages, and from the Gap to Punch Pizza, businesses are doing their part too. The actions that have been taken in just five states this year -- Maryland, Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Hawaii -- mean that more than a million workers will see a raise.
But hold onto your hats. Because in the coming months we're going to see President Obama use this strategy on a couple of issues that will spark some fires. First of all, we know that the President has given Speaker Boehner until August to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the House. If he doesn't, Obama will use his pen to sign executive orders that re-prioritize our current deportation policies.

The second use of the pen will happen when the EPA releases their policies governing emissions from existing coal plants. As many have noted, this will be the most important step the President will take in dealing with climate change. And as has been recently reported, rather than leave it up to the EPA to make the announcement, President Obama will do it himself.

What I find fascinating about all this is that the Republican strategy of obstruction is nothing more than a power game. Their intent has always been to strip the President of his power. But perhaps they forgot that he taught classes on the topic of power analysis. President Obama is not about to play the victim and give his away. No matter what they throw at him by way of obstruction, he'll find a way to carry on...doing everything he can to implement the changes we elected him to make.


  1. What I love about this is that they are powerless to stop him or this strategy. If we get another Dem in the WH after he leaves, those Executive Orders will be allowed to stand and do their work for another four years, extending his efforts well beyond his term.

    1. I also believe that the timing is right for this one. The pen and phone wouldn't have been as effective over the long term if he hadn't employed conciliatory rhetoric and the common sense caucus first. The right wingers will scream "TYRANT!" But people know he's tried everything else and Republicans haven't budged.


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