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Why the “Obama vs the Do Nothing Congress” Narrative will Probably Stick

by Michael Austin, published

Here is something that everyone who has ever been through third grade knows in the deep reptilian recesses of the brain: the best way for an unpopular kid to increase his status is to pick on someone even less popular. And you get bonus points if the really unpopular kid starts the fight.

I have long suspected that the entire world is just a very large, very expensive version of my third grade class. This just keeps getting confirmed for me in the worlds of business, education, and politics. Especially politics, where the second most unpopular kid in the school is about to have a big ‘ol food fight with the least popular.

I refer, of course, to Barack Obama, whose approval rating of 41 percent is close to a record low for a modern president. But Obama is the homecoming king compared to Congress, with an approval rating of 13.5 percent. As unpopular as the president is, he is still three times more popular than the kid who is picking on him.

And yet, John Boehner continues with his plan to

sue Obama over his use of executive power. And not just any use of executive power. Congress plans to sue the president over Obamacare.

In order to make a legal case that Obama has damaged Congress by his executive actions regarding the Affordable Care Act, Boehner will have to go before the country, and the courts, and say something like this: “the House of Representatives voted in good faith to implement Obamacare on a specific timetable. President Obama disregarded our legislative intent and delayed implementation of the employer mandate by a year. Therefore, millions of people that we wanted to give health insurance to did not get it when we said they should.”

Then he gets to explain why the House of Representatives, that has been so desperately injured by Obama’s implementation delay, voted 54 times to repeal the very bill they are so mad about Obama partially delaying.

Behind all of this, of course, there is a very technical set of legal and constitutional arguments about what presidents can do, what legislatures can do, and who has to tell what to who before doing what. It will be a long, dull, complicated affair that probably won’t go very far in the courts and probably won’t be resolved until long after Obama has left office.

In the meantime, Obama has a counter narrative that goes like this:

"If House Republicans are really concerned about me taking too many executive actions, the best solution to that is to passing bills. Pass a bill. Solve a problem. Don't just say no on something that everybody agrees needs to be done."

Unlike the House complaint, this is a clear, direct, and easy-to-understand argument that gets to the heart of why Congress is so unpopular. By suing Obama for taking strong executive actions, they concede that he is strong president who does things. Technically illegal and possibly unconstitutional things, they will argue, but these distinctions are much harder for people to understand than the simple dichotomy between “doing something” and “doing nothing.”

By framing their battle with Obama as a fight between a small-government Congress and a lawless dictator, Boehner and company are speaking to the tea party base, which has long accepted as fact the narrative that Obama is a lawless dictator. But this group also believes that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim who hates America for fun. They don’t want a lawsuit; they want an impeachment, and they are already speaking derisively of Boehner’s cowardice in bringing a lawsuit to an impeachment fight.

For the rest of us, Boehner’s lawsuit will almost certainly end up highlighting the main reason we don’t like Congress. It is their inaction, not their actions, that has made them so unpopular. And by suing Obama in a way that gives him a line like, “if you don’t like what I am doing, do something yourselves,” they are conceding to him — perhaps more than he deserves — the role of “active leader,” which is precisely the thing that most people in the country want someone to be.

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