America is a nation in political turmoil and that is putting it mildly. In one respect, this is nothing new; the period following the signing of our Constitution was marked by a contentious debate between the Federalists and Republicans over the correct structure of government and the proper roles for the different branches of our government, and then, as now, there were no easy answers. Two sides with two very different views fought for supremacy in a complex political system that reveled in having too many cooks in the kitchen. The idea, of course, was that a mixed stew of viewpoints would eventually result in some sort of balance, which would be healthy for our nation.
The crucial difference, though, between the 1790s and our own decade is that back then our government still managed to get things done. It happened by barter, by persuasion, and even by blackmail, but it did get done. Even during FDR's time, when political factionalism and brinksmanship sunk to dismaying lows, the American government somehow managed to function and rescue us from the greatest financial depression in history. Things today are not much worse than they were in those times, so why is it that our current political establishment seems to be in a constant state of paralysis?
Maybe it's because of the Internet, that has created government by news cycle, maybe it's because of the unprecedented sums of corporate money flooding into Washington and corrupting our political process, maybe it's because of Supreme Court Justices intent on putting their ideological stamp on our judicial framework, maybe it's because of the dizzying pace of technological change and international competition that keeps upending our economic stability, or maybe it's simply because our politicians themselves are opportunistic jerks with no fresh ideas and no real patriotism.
But whatever the reason, this problem has be fixed, and it needs to be fixed now. The latest bout of political fighting over who actually "owns" the sequester demonstrates clearly just how immature, inane, and counter-productive our political process has become - devolving into silly blame games that accomplish absolutely nothing except to give Senators and Congressmen airtime on the Sunday shows. If these people are not willing to be ashamed by their behavior, we should be ashamed for them, for we elected them in the first place.
But shame alone will not solve the problem either. For that we need action from someone who has the authority to make a difference - and that person, of course, has to be our president. President Obama was elected the first time on the promise of change, and the second time on the promise of results. Granted that he was dealt a crappy hand in terms of both the economy and a Republican party hellbent on obstructing everything he tried to do, but that is the beat he opted for and so now he must perform. There have been some bright points in the last four years, most notably an economic bailout that saved our system from total collapse, healthcare reform (which will provide health coverage for millions of uninsured Americans despite all its flaws), progress on gay rights, and now hopefully immigration reform, but these are still not enough.
As I have said in earlier blogs, House Republicans have successfully stalled America's progress by holding the legislative branch of our government hostage, and will continue to manufacture uncertainty and gridlock unless President Obama takes a firmer hand with Congress. The only way to do that is through a greater use of his executive power.
Executive power does not entitle a president to do anything he wants (and with good reason), but neither should a leader hesitate to use it judiciously during a time of crisis. There is a fine line between high-handedness and effective leadership and Obama needs to learn how to walk that line - at least if he would rather spend his next four years improving the country rather than waste them sparring with an intellectually and morally bankrupt opposition.
Luckily, he has history on his side.
Our first and most famous commander-in-chief, George Washington, was not shy about using his authority to shape the direction of our new nation, not because he enjoyed exercising power (quite the contrary, in fact) but because he knew that it was necessary to hold our union together and to protect the foundation that was being laid for a stable and cohesive future. His decisions - ranging from the assumption of states' debt to create a common economy, the establishment of a foreign policy of neutrality to the creation of a synergistic trade relationship with England - and even his governing style were attacked furiously by the Republicans of his time, yet Washington stuck to his guns. He realized that a nation with the promise of America could not achieve its potential without strong decision making and that after the partisan squabbles were over, it was imperative for the president to take a stance and act.
America today is in a similar place. Deep ideological and partisan divides have polarized the people and paralyzed our government. We are a nation at risk of flying apart and falling apart and the prevention of that requires a firm leader who is willing to call the shots despite opposition and despite political fallout. It is, in fact, the president's responsibility to do so. The buck stops at the Oval Office.
In an ideal world, President Obama would be able to work with a reasonable Congress to get things done but the mean-spirited partisanship of the Republicans and the power of special interests has made this nearly impossible. In such a climate, the president has no choice but to take executive actions that are timely and necessary to protect our present and our future. A stark example of this can be seen on the gun control issue, where legislative progress has been impossible despite the shooting in Newtown and despite increasing public support for restrictions, making it necessary for the president to use his executive power to protect the safety of Americans.
There is a reason why the President of the United States is called the Commander-in-Chief and it is not because we want a monarch. It is simply because someone in our government needs to take charge and do something. Democracy may be difficult, and it may even be slow, but it was never meant to be frozen in place like a deer caught in the headlights.
SANJAY SANGHOEE has worked at leading investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein as well as at a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is the author of a thriller entitled "Merger" (St. Martin's Press) that Chicago Tribune called "Timely, Gripping, and Original". Please visit www.sanghoee.com to sign up for updates.