03/11/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated May 10, 2014

Sticking It to the President

What would it take for today's Republicans to stop trying to stick it to the president? If history is a guide, a much greater international crisis than Russia's invasion of Crimea.

A case in point -- August 12, 1941. That's when, by a 203 to 202 margin, the House of Representatives changed the course of American history by voting to extend the peace-time draft law that Congress had passed a year earlier.

The close vote was no accident. Since the summer of 1940, Republicans had enjoyed criticizing President Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats for their support of the unpopular, peace-time draft law.

What changed on August 12 was that a small, but important, group of Republicans broke ranks with their party to allow one-vote passage of a draft bill that the Senate then quickly approved.

The relevance of this historic 1941 vote is that it offers us perspective on just how far out-of-power parties are prepared to go when they believe they benefit from sticking it to the president.

Today's Tea Party-led Republicans, who continually oppose whatever legislation President Obama backs -- from immigration reform to raising the minimum wage -- have nothing on the Republicans of the pre-Pearl Harbor years, most of whom were unwilling to cut the president slack, even with the armies of Germany and Japan on the march.

In his memoir, My First Fifty Years in Politics, Joe Martin, the Republican House minority leader during that era, did not hesitate to defend the contradictory role he played in opposing the draft extension bill of 1941, which he believed would weaken the Democratic Party but which he also thought the country needed. "Thus, while as a leader I voted against it myself, I hoped that it would pass," Martin wrote years later.

A miscalculation by Martin in 1941 would have sent America into war against Japan and Germany with a military that was downsizing rather than expanding. Yet, Martin concluded that risking such a disaster was worth the potential political gain. Small wonder then that today's Tea Party militants are willing to perpetuate a Congressional stalemate when America's military survival is not at stake.

The question that remains is, What can President Obama do in the face of this political stalemate?

After World War II began, FDR did not have to face Republican opposition to the draft or to military spending. Unemployment dropped from 14.6 percent in 1940 to 1.2 percent in 1944, and during the war, Roosevelt was able to make domestic progress by playing the veteran card.

In 1944 he succeeded in getting Congress to pass the G.I. Bill, which, after the war ended, helped 4.3 million vets purchase homes at low interest rates and allowed 2.2 million vets to get a college education in which their tuition and fees were paid for.

Today, by contrast, the Democratic-Republican standoff shows no signs of improving. Tea Party conservatives in their safe seats are not worried about the stalled recovery's effect on the poor, and Democrats can't yield any more on such basics as the extension of long-term unemployment insurance without losing the trust of their supporters.

That puts achieving any change in the status quo squarely in the hands of the president as he heads toward mid-term elections in which the party occupying the White House typically loses seats in Congress. The president has one clear option, though, if he wants to make headway on the domestic front -- make sure his health care reform lives up to its potential.

There are already parts of the Affordable Health Care Act everyone regards as a triumph. Nobody is proposing changing the provision that allows the young to stay on their parents' health plans until they are 26, and nobody is arguing that those with pre-existing health conditions should be denied coverage or forced to pay higher rates.

The immediate challenge for the president is to get the families who have had trouble navigating online access to health care in a position in which they can benefit from the new law.

A February Kaiser Health Tracking Poll showed that 50 percent of the uninsured say they don't have enough information to know how the Affordable Care Act will impact their families. Worse still, 76 percent of the uninsured don't know they have to sign up for health care by March 31 or pay a penalty.

That's a lot of Americans in need, a lot of voters who will go to the polls this November.