Vail Daily column: ‘Comeback kids’ charge to victories
During his presidency, Bill Clinton’s critics crowed about how they KO’d him. They bragged about buckling his knees on the political mat.
Like a prize-fighter who’s down but not out, Clinton showed snap-back tenacity. He rebounded from defeat and powered his way to political victories. Like Clinton’s demise, President Obama’s political cave-in has been prematurely reported.
After stinging defeats in the 2014 congressional elections, President Obama caught second wind. Today, he doesn’t act like a decked president dully reciting lines in a closing Oval Office act. He runs ahead of the GOP’s slow-footed opposition. His game plan: to “speak out, judge fairly and defend the rights of oppressed and needy people” (Proverbs 31:9).
After clobbering the president in last November’s elections, political foes wrote-off Obama’s presidency as lame-duck. Commenting on the president as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Time magazine’s commentator Joe Klein first saw a mute president (in November 2015) who had lost his quack. “The term lame duck didn’t begin to cover it (the election debacle): he was an oil-slick duck, paralyzed and defeated by a complicated world and unrelenting opposition,” wrote Klein (“Barack Obama: the Undefeated,” April 27-May 4).
Now Klein sees Obama as a resilient, strong influential leader. Picking himself off the mat, the president counter-punched and won several political rounds.
By boldly re-establishing ties with Cuba, the president has Senate’s majority leader Mitch McConnell quivering like a turtle hiding in its shell. Mitch is backpedaling. This deal with the Castro brothers is “not a signal that you want to work with us to get things done,” whines McConnell. “You just wanted to do your own thing.” McConnell’s gripes about solo-acting President Obama remind us of another activist president: Republican Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (1901-1909), who issued 1,081 executive orders. Obama trails with a meager 200-plus.
Of late, the president pulls few punches. During his eulogy for the late South Carolina State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the Obama transfixed worshippers by taking a long pause. Then he broke into song with the opening bars of “Amazing Grace,” joined by the AME Emanuel Church’s congregation. Energy from this Gospel song struck down the Confederate battle flag, forcing its removal from statehouse grounds. Truly amazing!
Moreover, the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Republican challenge to the Affordable Care Act, coupled with the high court making same-sex marriage legal throughout the U.S., secured President Obama’s legacy. These decisions rendered stinging defeats to the GOP’s uncompromising agenda.
Obama’s achieved political goals leave Republicans dazed. In addition to restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, there’s in-the-works a non-nuclear proliferation treaty with Iran, along with a landmark climate change deal with China, and a revamped immigration policy that doesn’t break-up families of Latino children who are U.S. citizens.
Republicans do little to counter such political moves except try to block them. They complain about President Obama’s “habitual executive overreach.”
Does this complaint sound familiar? It was hurled at George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who supported the Constitution’s activist presidency. Southern colonials George Mason and Patrick Henry sounded like doleful Mitch McConnell because “an energetic president doomed the nation.” Since Henry “smelled a rat,” he wouldn’t attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and worked ardently in Virginia against its ratification.
Mason conceded the weak governing Articles of Confederation almost destroyed the young Republic after the Revolutionary War. But the Constitution’s federal powers went too far, warned Mason. He shuttered at its consolidation of power in a national government and a strong president, which diminished personal liberties and reduced states’ rights. Mason rejected the federal government’s constitutional power to directly tax citizens.
James Madison lost patience with the Mitch McConnells of his era who complained that a president armed with executive orders harmed the Republic. Before the Constitutional Convention, Madison lamented to James Monroe in 1786, “Is it possible with such an example before our eyes of impotency in the federal system (under the Articles of Confederation) to remain skeptical with regard to the necessity of infusing more energy (presidential power) into it?”
Today, Obama acts on Madison’s desire for an effective national leader. After mid-year congressional election losses, the president got off the mat. He’s delivered a roundhouse of governmental policies that energize his presidency and challenge a do-nothing Congress.
Here’s what the president has learned: If you let conservatives frame the question of how to govern, then they will get the answers they want. For example, Republicans harp on Obama’s lack of governmental restraint; that “he doesn’t believe in small government.” Concede this point and Republicans gain a wider audience who don’t like presidents who issue executive orders, except when their candidate is the office-holder.
Comeback kids Clinton and Obama got off the mat after tough battles. Implementing policy, they sparred against Republicans who griped like Constitution bashers in the 1780s.
They need to chill out and get over it.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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