President Barack Obama’s appointees to the influential D.C. Court of Appeals are being confirmed. Mel Watt, the North Carolina congressman who the president had tapped to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency, was approved by the Senate this week, despite strong resistance from Republicans. And House Republicans are on the verge of approving a two-year budget deal that actually increases some government funding and averts the potential for another government shutdown until 2015.
The president decided to embrace confrontation in the last months of 2013, and it has worked. His refusal to strip away parts of Obamacare, as Republicans demanded, and instead allow a government shutdown in October was vindicated as a strategy this week. The GOP, aware of how its poll numbers plummeted in the midst of that shutdown, opted to avoid another.
And with the support of the president, Senate Democrats last month changed the rules of the chamber to limit the the filibuster of nominees, leading to the confirmations of the judges, Watt and other Obama picks for key posts in the federal government.
This is not the first time in his presidency that Obama has opted for confrontation with Republicans over compromise. And it’s likely on other issues, such as convincing Republican governors to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, he will continue to seek common ground.
But the filibuster change and the refusal to compromise during the shutdown suggest the White House’s instincts are changing, with a recognition that the divide between the president and Republicans is great, and bi-partisan agreements unlikely. Changing the rules of the Senate held the risk that Senate Republicans would be angered, refuse to work with the president on other issues and weaken the power of filibusters even more when they are in charge of Congress again. Obama elected to take this risk, acknowledging that Republicans can’t be much more resistant to his agenda than they already are now.
The shutdown didn’t help the president’s approval ratings, but he and his team understood that allowing Republicans to tear up planks of Obamacare in exchange for funding the government would only encourage similar tactics in the future.
Now, the question will be how much Obama confronts the Republicans going forward. With Republicans resistant to an increase to the federal minimum wage, will Obama unilaterally use his executive power to raise wages for people working for federal contractors, as some liberals have called for? After already stopping deportations of most undocumented Americans who are under age 30, will Obama broaden the group of people who are allowed to stay in America, essentially changing immigration laws by executive fiat?