President Obama issued a veto threat last week against a corporate-tax-cutting orgy that promised the world to many powerful interests but offered little to the middle class and nothing to low-income Americans. The president's move was singularly useful. It should be a sign of things to come.
The widespread pessimism about the next two years in Washington is premised on the view that divided government can work only if both sides are reasonable and engage in amiable bargaining. Obviously, given how profoundly conservative Republicans have become and how deeply many of them loathe Obama, that's not about to happen.
But the coming period could be useful in an entirely different way. There will be a new clarity in the nation's political argument. No longer will issues be muddled by a divided Congress in which a Republican House could block a Democratic Senate's initiatives, and vice versa. Now it will be a Republican Congress versus a Democratic president. Voters will have a much easier time seeing who stands for what.
Moreover, the president still has a great deal of power. There is the negative power to veto bills, and he needs only a third of the membership of one house to sustain him. In this configuration, Democrats in the House, far weaker in theory than Democrats in the Senate, become more powerful given their cohesiveness. If Obama and House Democrats find ways of sticking together, they can prevent the next two years from becoming a festival of reaction.
Something like this happened on the corporate tax deal that was being cooked up between House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R., Mich.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.). The agreement that was in the works would have made a variety of corporate tax breaks permanent while extending others, at an estimated 10-year cost of around $400 billion. Missing from the agreement was any permanence for improvements passed in 2009 to two tax provisions valued by progressives, the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit. It's also strange that some who claim to care passionately about deficit reduction abandon their inhibitions when corporate tax breaks are on the table.
The emerging accord had already provoked a Democratic revolt led by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) and Sens. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.). Some of these congressional foes of the package told the White House that a veto threat would make it easier to rally opposition to it. The administration was reluctant to issue one unless it knew its veto could be sustained, but it ultimately resolved the chicken-and-egg dilemma by going ahead with the warning. This appears, for now, to have headed off the great tax giveaway.
But if Obama and progressives can cooperate to keep the worst from happening, they - and particularly the president - can also get things done. Obama's executive actions on immigration squarely challenge congressional Republicans to put up or shut up on their claims that they actually want reform.
Obama could act in other areas as well, and in the process send a signal that he wants to do something about stagnating wages. One example: Labor Department regulations could restore overtime pay to most salaried workers by adjusting current limits to account for inflation. This would curb a common practice of reclassifying employees as "managers" to get out of wage-and-hour rules. Would Congress want to block a pay raise for people who work 60 hours a week?
The Obama administration moved on another front last week to curb ozone emissions linked to asthma and heart disease. Republicans said they would try to block the new antipollution regulations. OK, let's fight it out. Again, conservatives will have to explain why they want to reverse an initiative rather than obstruct action altogether and then blame Obama for being ineffectual.
Yes, such steps will call forth enraged rhetoric about "the imperial president." But guess what? Starting in the Reagan era, when Democrats controlled Congress, the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups put out studies and books attacking "the imperial Congress" because they didn't like any interference with a president from their side. It seems that altered political circumstances can lead to neck-snapping changes in convictions that are allegedly rooted in constitutional principle.
Obama and progressives should spend the next two years accomplishing as many useful things as they can, blocking regressive actions by Congress, and clarifying the choices facing the nation's voters. And they'll get much further by doing all three at once.