President Obama has found a difficult adversary in the nation's unemployment numbers, though after three years he is starting to make headway. He needs to hold his fire in his duel with a Republican rival until the messy primaries put forth a candidate. But he has found one opponent, at least, whom he can take on with glee: the conservatives in Congress.
Emboldened by his end-of-year victory on the payroll tax and unemployment benefits, the President last week appointed a head to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and announced a dramatic restructuring in the Pentagon budget—both over the objections of an increasingly marginalized Tea Party. He realized he had less to gain from bargaining with these extreme and irrational voices, and there was more he could do on his own.
But rather than pursuing an agenda of hard-left executive orders and soaring speeches on progressive principles, he's chosen to pick and win fights that appeal to the mainstream: making sure government does its job well, both to defend regular Americans and spend their tax dollars wisely.
In September, when President Obama introduced the American Jobs Act, he filled it with specific proposals that had previously had both Republican and Democratic champions. He envisioned an approach that would invite, cajole and guilt the two parties to work together. He thought he was giving Congress the opening they needed to make progress under a bipartisan banner.
Instead, the Tea Party closed its grip on the Republican House majority, and the Party of No sat on its hands as approval ratings for Congress reached record lows.
The Super Committee—the result of an unresolved politically-manufactured dispute—came up with no proposal, as everyone predicted would happen, and Congressional numbers dwindled further.
Boehner's caucus forced Congress to play games with disaster relief. They left states and the unemployed equally uncertain as they withheld funds. And as the year came to a close, they nearly raised taxes on tens of millions of Americans by refusing to go along with a bipartisan bill out of the Senate.
That's when the President saw he had spent too much of the year trying to find a sensible seat at John Boehner's Mad Tea Party. Instead, he walked away from their table. It's been the best decision he's made for his own ability to govern; his re-election prospects; and, most importantly, the good of the country.
The President is not about to use his executive powers to their fullest extent pushing a progressive dream agenda: from ending the ill-conceived "war on drugs" to expanding full LGBT equality to pursuing criminal charges against Wall Street...well, criminals. He's still pragmatic, sometimes to a fault in the eyes of his liberal supporters. But he has found a focus where liberals and the "sensible center" agree: that government should work.
If we have a CFPB, it should have a director. If we have the Pentagon consuming a vast portion of our budget, it should be spent sensibly. Except for a few die-hard libertarians who would rather see all agencies dissolved or a few pacifists who want to eliminate the Department of Defense, most of us recognize the worth of these agencies, and so we want them to function.
Let the Tea Party scream. They louder they get, the louder the GOP Presidential candidates need to shout to be heard, and the more absurd their statements become (Huntsman getting attacked for saying he'd accept a deal with $1 of revenue for $10 of cuts). Ignoring their cacophony, the President can continue his campaign, at times against the Tea Party Congress, at times dismissive of them. And in two weeks, we'll see a State of the Union Address filled with ideas to keep America moving that will get the Republican rivals hollering more loudly, most Americans nodding in agreement, and will ensure this isn't the President's final annual address.