On Thursday, Obama faced the first set-back of his second term as the Senate blocked a vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to head the Defense Department. Politico recalls today that Obama was warned by several advisors and Democrats on the Hill that tapping Hagel as SecDef would spark a firestorm. In what is becoming a theme for his final term in office, Obama pressed ahead anyway, apparently confident that his reelection gives him a personal mandate. His over-interpreting the election results is providing a rocky start for the next four years.
An examination of exit polls from November show that Obama won largely on an empathy vote. On the question of which candidate “cares more” about voters, Obama crushed Romney, 81-18. On every other criteria–shares my values, is a strong leader and has a vision for the future, Romney beat Obama, often by wide margins. Even on most specific issues like taxes or the deficit, Romney edged Obama. Obama’s win was a victory for him, not his policies.
Hagel is not the only provocative nomination Obama has pushed. For Treasury, he has tapped White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew. The pick seems almost designed to annoy Republicans, who are still furious with Lew over his perceived intransigence during the debt ceiling talks. Senate Republicans on the Budget Committee believe Lew intentionally lied to them during a hearing on the President’s budget. Combine this with the fact that his only real private sector experience was running an investment fund at Citigroup that blew up during the financial crisis and nearly brought down the bank. His is not an inspiring choice.
John Brennan, Obama’s choice to head the CIA, has drawn fire from both the left and the right. Conservatives are leery of Brennan because he seems to be an apologist for Muslim extremism. The left, as well as many on the libertarian right, meanwhile, are concerned about his role in expanding the use of drones and developing a “kill list” of suspected terrorists. Again, his nomination by Obama is an almost intentional provocation of the Administration’s critics.
The White House has also floated Penny Pritzker, heiress to the Hyatt Hotel chain and major Obama bundler, as the next Commerce Secretary. She was forced to withdraw her name for the same job in 2009, over opposition from unions and questions about her role in a major bank failure. Floating her name a second time is a clear sign of the new confidence Obama has drawn from his reelection.
Presidents generally seek to avoid confirmation fights over cabinet nominees. They are needless distractions for any Administration. The Senate generally defers to a President’s choice for a particular office, so there is usually a pretty high-bar to generate controversy. Obama has lowered that bar considerably with at least three, and potentially four, nominations. Either Obama’s confidence has devolved to arrogance, or he is actively seeking fights with Republicans.
Neither bodes well for the next four years.
Obama’s cabinet selections are just the latest indication of his emerging approach to governing. His Administration has been busy issuing reams of new regulations and rules. During the State of the Union speech, he directly warned Congress that if they didn’t act on his policies he would find ways to enact them through executive orders and other actions. His is becoming an Imperial Presidency.
The next few months will tell whether he achieves this goal.