Regardless of the resolution to the “fiscal cliff,” President Obama’s relations with Congress appear likely to worsen. Already bad, Mr. Obama’s congressional dealings are beginning to have some striking similarities to those of a very unlikely predecessor: Richard Nixon. While Mr. Obama may succeed in the fiscal cliff confrontation, he could pay a very heavy price for it.
Mr. Obama’s strategy makes his opinion of Congress clear: not much. Moreover, he does not mind if they know it. In fact, he is betting everything on it right now. His primary goal is a political win on higher tax rates, and his chief tactic to achieve these is not negotiations with Congress, but a public campaign away from them.
Mr. Obama has always felt more comfortable relying on his leverage with the electorate than his connection with Congress. Even with overwhelming Democratic majorities during his first term, his ability to successfully navigate Congress was limited. If anything, November’s election has only exacerbated his predilection.
This brings us to the president’s unlikely but interesting parallel with Nixon.
Electorally, both saw mandates in their re-elections. In 1972, Nixon won in a landslide — 60.7 percent of the popular vote and 520 electoral votes. Forty years later, Mr. Obama would win by far smaller margins — 50.7 percent of the popular vote and 332 electoral votes — but he sees no less of a mandate in them.
Despite their shared sense of dominance, neither candidate’s re-election would have long congressional coattails. Each would see his party pick up a net of 10 seats in Congress. Nixon’s Republicans gained 12 House seats and lost two Senate seats. Mr. Obama’s Democrats picked up eight House seats and two Senate seats.
In fiscal policy, they are mirror opposites. Nixon came to loggerheads with Congress on his insistence to not spend the amount of money Congress desired. His response was to “impound” the funds. In contrast, Mr. Obama’s initial $1.6 trillion deficit-reduction offer to Congress in the fiscal cliff debate was based almost solely on increased taxes to accommodate continued spending — spending that has stood at record peacetime levels since he took office.
Electoral and fiscal opposites, Nixon and Mr. Obama share one similarity: rocky ties with Congress. Certainly, Nixon’s were ultimately his undoing, but considering the advantages Mr. Obama has had, his negative experience is already worth noting.
Nixon faced large Democratic majorities in Congress during his entire tenure. Mr. Obama had overwhelming control of both bodies during his first two years, but split control the past two years, a scenario that will be repeated in the next two.
Over the past two years, Mr. Obama’s dealings with Congress have been poor — marked by quarrels over Operation Fast and Furious, the relaxing of welfare reform’s work requirements, the Benghazi killings and non-recess “recess appointees.” Even when he had enormous majorities, relations were not great. He notably failed to secure a single Republican vote for his health care plan.
This does not seem to have bothered Mr. Obama and certainly helps explain why he has no hesitancy in seeking to circumvent Congress in the current fiscal reform debate. It also likely presages ties worsening in his second term.
If Mr. Obama prevails in his insistence on tax-rate hikes and minimal entitlement savings — rather than a consensus for revenue increases and real entitlement reform — this alone will set the stage for increased acrimony with the next Congress.
The 2014 midterm elections are apt to further exacerbate negative liaison with increased Republican numbers likely in both chambers. Historically, the president’s party loses congressional seats in midterms elections. This is especially true in a president’s second midterm — recall President George W. Bush’s 2006 loss of Congress.
The trend could prove particularly pronounced for Mr. Obama. Like Nixon, Mr. Obama’s inability to transfer his supporters to his party makes Democrats very vulnerable in 2014. It already happened once, in 2010. Additionally, Senate Democrats face a tilted playing field by having to defend seven more seats than Republicans.
Nor are Mr. Obama’s difficulties in Congress going to come only from Republicans. Mr. Obama’s rapport even with Democrats reportedly have been weak. Red-state Democrats, facing elections without Mr. Obama on the ticket, will feel increasing pressure to distance themselves from him.
In his first term, Mr. Obama relied on his own personal power rather than on Capitol Hill coalition-building — with limited success. His current fiscal cliff negotiation stance indicates this tendency will likely continue.
Factoring in the 2014 midterm’s likely losses and his own subsequent lame-duck status, Mr. Obama can really only expect success with his governing style during 2013. Beyond that, his reliance on personal power will reach its limits. It is unclear whether the dividends he can count on accruing in 2013 will outweigh the debits likely to come due in 2014 and beyond.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.