Obama’s “Phone and Pen” Agenda Only Highlights His Political Ineptitude

In Tuesday’s State of the Union President Obama promised a “year of action.” But if the past five years of his presidency are any indication, he may not have the political power or skill to fulfill that pledge.

Obama’s move away from Congress and towards an expanded use of executive powers has long been threatened. The latest warning was made by President Obama in his first Cabinet meeting of 2014.

“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” Obama said. “And I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward.”

“I’ve got a phone that allows me to convene Americans from every walk of life,” he added.

But don’t mistake Obama’s newfound executive-centric bravado with a more capable leader. In fact, as Ron Fournier writes for National Journal, it may be just the opposite:

“We still didn’t know enough about the Republicans,” said one senior administration official [on why their gun-control proposals failed], who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal assessments.

Didn’t know enough? After five years in office? This official, like so many others in the West Wing, apparently is not sufficiently self-aware to realize he confirmed an Obama critique—that the president is too removed and disinterested from the political process to affect it, that he doesn’t value congressional relations enough to give them anything more than lip service, and that, for his enormous intellectual gifts, Obama is handicapped by a lack of political curiosity. He chose not to know enough about the Republicans.

The media will inevitably seek to defend the president by laying blame at the feet of an obstinate Congress. But as famed political scientist Richard Neustadt said, “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” And on that score, the president hasn’t just failed, he hasn’t even tried, even with members of his own party. Ron Christie writes for The Daily Beast:

Ask many prominent Democratic Congressmen and Senators in private and they will tell you that Mr. Obama only picks up the phone or sits down with them when he needs something.  I have, and their reaction to Obama’s outreach to the Hill is revealing. A nice hand written note or drinks on the Truman Balcony to build and strengthen relationships?  No.  A weekend at Camp David with the Democratic Leadership and their families to break the ice? Negative.

Rather than burn up the phones and wear down some shoe leather to either develop relationships with Democrats, or put the pressure on Republicans, President Obama is instead turning to executive orders.

“America does not stand still, and neither will I,” Obama said in his State of the Union. “So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

America doesn’t stand still, but the Constitution doesn’t change. The Founders, much to their credit, understood the need for three coequal branches that would serve as a check on one another. If the president disagrees with Congress, then he is free to appeal to the American voters. As Ronald Reagan said it so well, “If you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.”

President Obama understands that. At a recent Democratic National Committee fundraiser in which a heckler insisted that he use more executive orders, Obama is reported to have responded: “Before everybody starts clapping, that’s not how it works. We’ve got this Constitution, we’ve got this whole thing about separation of powers. So there is no shortcut to politics and there’s no shortcut to democracy.”

How sad then that he chose the State of the Union to now attempt that shortcut.