Teaching college students is both extremely exhilarating and extremely deflating. As a professor, I try to listen more than I talk. Most of the time, students talk about their lives and what they consider important and I am quite impressed. My current students are interested in the environment, making sure all people are treated fairly, and about how to make the country safer. In discussing the mass shooting at Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., they asked many interesting questions about the mental health system in the country and about the tension between security and freedom.
At other times, however, listening to students reminds me that some topics that I consider to be important are very irrelevant in their lives and that many people don’t wake up and think about. This week, I have been talking about the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. In talking about Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion as a creative interpretation of the Constitution, I realized that very few students were as impressed with Roberts’ intellectual gymnastics as I was. In fact, when I asked the students about their thoughts about the act, not a single student asked a question or offered an opinion. One student finally said that he did not understand the issue and that it wasn’t even worth understanding.
As someone who teaches about politics, I try to stay informed about many political issues–local, national, and international. I share my thoughts to reporters, civic organizations, and almost anyone who wants to know what I think. Most of these folks are as informed as I am about the issues, if not more so. These talks sometimes get deep into the weeds, as I talk about the players and their actions in the same way a group of fantasy football addicts discuss the upcoming NFL games.
My students are more representative of average citizens and recent polls confirm that fact. A recent Elon University poll revealed that about one-third of North Carolinians knew who House Speaker Thom Tillis or Senate President Phil Berger are, despite the number of media stories about them or that pundits, like me parse every statement and action by each as if the future of the civilized world was dependent on their actions. Likewise a recent Pew Research poll indicated to about one-third of Americans know the particulars of the Affordable Care Act and a High Point University Poll indicates that most North Carolinians knew little about the major voting overhaul signed into law after the last legislative session.
My students often joke with me, telling me that I need to “get out more” because I am ignorant of popular culture or major technology advances. While I think it is sad that most Americans follow the comings and goings of Milley Cyrus or the Kardashians, it is also good to remind myself that Thom Tillis’ poll numbers in running for the Republican Senate nomination may not be as important as I consider them to be.
The White House announced today that the president would address the nation on Tuesday night about the situation in Syria. This speech comes almost two weeks after the White House expressed high confidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on its citizens resulting in a White House-estimated 1400 deaths. Since the August 30 announcement, the president has made statements to the press and at the G20 summit about his intent to authorize a military response.
It is very unusual that a president known as a gifted public speaker would wait so long before addressing the American people on this subject. Although most public opinion surveys indicate that a majority of Americans don’t favor a military response in Syria, President Obama’s reluctance on this issue is typical of his approach to many issues, especially when compared to his presidential predecessors.
On August 27, 1983 President Ronald Reagan addressed the American people on the the deaths of over 200 Marines in a car bomb attack against their barracks in Lebanon. After speaking about the Lebanon situation, Reagan spoke about the use of military in the Caribbean nation of Grenada, a country and situation unknown to most Americans. In the speech Reagan tied the situations in Lebanon and Grenada as being caused by Soviet Union mischief.
Reagan, as did other modern presidents, recognized the power of bully pulpit to affect public opinion in the country. President Obama, however, is much more reluctant to take to the national airwaves on Syria, the Affordable Care Act, and many other issues. It is true that previous presidents, like Reagan, did not have the hyper partisanship that Obama faces or the media environment that makes it difficult for even the president to cut through the media clutter and get a majority of Americans to pay attention to any issue.
It is, however, remarkable that Obama, whose political career was made on the basis of his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, would not take on the challenge of speaking to the American people about an issue that he may be staking his presidency on.
As I write, the North Carolina Senate has just voted to override Governor McCrory’s vetoes of bills that required drug tests for applicants for some welfare programs and to ease restrictions on employers checking some applicants in the E-verify system. The NC House previously voted to override both vetoes.
Since the governor announced that he vetoed both bills, there has been a concerted effort to frame the vetoes and the override votes as a test of McCrory’s leadership in the state. Many pundits have opined that McCrory has been steamrolled by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and that his use of the veto and his public relations campaign to uphold the vetoes was an attempt to regain some stature and power with both chambers. Republican strategist Carter Wrenn even went so far as to say that McCrory “looks weak.”
This frame, however, oversimplifies and over-personalizes the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. There is little doubt that governors often differ from legislators about policy issues, even members of their own political party. It is worth recognizing, however, that the relationship between the executive and legislative branches is not always about who is most powerful and about strategies to gain and maintain power. There are significant institutional differences between the branches that partially explain why a governor may veto legislation, even when it is unlikely that the veto will be sustained.
First, the governor represents the entire state, not just a small geographic area. The immigration bill that the governor vetoed was strongly supported within the agricultural community with many House and Senate members from these districts being among the most vocal supporters of the bill. The governor, however, argued that this bill, as written, could slow economic growth in the state. The governor’s position is understandable as he looks across the state and sees an overall unemployment rate of just under 9 percent, but pockets of unemployment, particularly in high service sector areas and former manufacturing areas that is well into double digits.
Second, the governor must administer all laws, not the General Assembly. The governor has the advantage of having the NC Attorney General on his Council of State. He is privy to legal opinions of the AG, especially with the the drug testing law, that points to future legal challenges about how the law is administered. McCrory even raised the possibility that the bill would not pass constitutional muster and, thus, be voided in the future.
Conflict between the executive and legislative branches of state government is inevitable. This is what separation of powers means. Even when one party controls state government, as do the Republicans in 2013, this does not mean that the veto will go unused. We cannot expect to see Governor McCrory wielding the veto pen as often as Governor Perdue did when she faced a Republican legislator, but we should expect other vetoes in future sessions.
Do these overrides mean that McCrory is politically damaged? Perhaps in the short-run. What people often forget is that the governor has many tools in his toolbox beyond the legislative veto. He has the bully pulpit that no member of the legislature has. McCrory has state employees at his disposal to administer the laws and programs. Most importantly, he has time on his hands. While every member of the General Assembly is up for reelection in 2014, he is not up for reelection until 2016–an eternity in political time. By this time, two overridden vetoes will be long forgotten by most.