On leadership

Updated
U.S. President Barack Obama greets people at the USX Irvin Works Jan. 29, 2014 in West Mifflin, Penn.
U.S. President Barack Obama greets people at the USX Irvin Works Jan. 29, 2014 in West Mifflin, Penn.
Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty
By all appearances, President Obama would welcome the chance to work with lawmakers on a solution to combat the climate crisis. But in 2010, a cap-and-trade bill couldn’t overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate, and the legislative prospects effectively collapsed after the GOP claimed a House majority in 2011.
 
There are, however, some steps the president can take on his own, and it appears Obama is increasingly prepared to do just that.
On the heels of the Senate’s passage of a long-awaited farm bill, the Obama administration is to announce on Wednesday the creation of seven regional “climate hubs” aimed at helping farmers and rural communities respond to the risks of climate change, including drought, invasive pests, fires and floods.
 
White House officials describe the move as one of several executive actions that President Obama will take on climate change without action from Congress.
 
In substance, the creation of the climate hubs is a limited step, but it is part of a broader campaign by the administration to advance climate policy wherever possible with executive authority. The action is also part of a push to build political support for the administration’s more divisive moves on climate change – in particular, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on coal-fired power plants.
This move follows a more expansive climate policy Obama unveiled last June, relying almost exclusively on executive authority already acknowledged by the Supreme Court.
 
To be sure, these “climate hubs” are a fairly modest policy, intended to help a limited number of farmers adapt to changing conditions. But in the bigger picture, it’s also evidence of a sixth-year president eager to do something fairly specific with his power: lead.
 
And the more I think about it, the more common this seems to be.
 
There are a notable group of pundits who have spent much of Obama’s presidency demanding that he “lead more.” It’s never been entirely clear what, specifically, these pundits expect the president to do, especially in the face of unyielding and reflexive opposition from Congress, but the complaints seemed rooted in misplaced expectations and confusion over institutional limits.
 
As the argument goes, if only the president were willing to lead – louder, harder, and bigger – he could somehow advance his agenda through sheer force of will, institutional constraints be damned. And if Congress resists, it’s necessarily evidence that Obama is leading poorly – after all, if only he were a more leading leader, Congress would, you know, follow his lead. The line of criticism became so tiresome and so common that Greg Sargent began mocking it with a convenient label: the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power.
 
What’s I’m curious about now, however, is whether those same pundits are willing to concede that in the West Wing, there’s been all kinds of leading going on lately.
 
When Republicans threatened to hold the debt ceiling hostage last fall, promising to crash the economy on purpose unless Democrats met their demands, Obama drew a line in the sand – there would be no negotiations over the full faith and credit of the United States – and the GOP backed down. In the process, a new precedent was set, thanks to the president’s willingness to lead.
 
When a bill to impose new Iranian sanctions threatened to sabotage international nuclear diplomacy, Obama stepped up, applied pressure, worked the phones, arranged meetings, and convinced senators to hold off and give the ongoing talks a chance. The president’s leadership turned a bill that appeared ready to pass and stopped it in its tracks.
 
When congressional Republicans balked at a minimum-wage increase, Obama used the powers available to him to give thousands of government contractors a raise. The GOP remains outraged, but the president showed leadership and ignored the complaints. Obama now appears ready to take similar executive action on addressing climate change.
 
So here’s the question for the “lead more” pundits: doesn’t this count as presidential leadership, too? Or do Obama’s actions only count as leadership if he’s taking steps Republicans like?
 

Barack Obama

On leadership

Updated