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Are We Forever Trapped in Political Gridlock?

Searching for answers by talking to fictional politicians.
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President Barack Obama acknowledges the crowd as he arrives on stage to deliver remarks at the Democratic National Convention.

President Barack Obama acknowledges the crowd as he arrives on stage to deliver remarks at the Democratic National Convention.

“It can be frustrating, this business of democracy,” President Barack Obama told Americans during his address to the Democratic National Convention last night. “Trust me, I know.”

Political party loyalists don’t just dislike each other — they really dislike each other, as the Pew Research Center revealed in a report last month. More than half of both Democrats and Republicans reported “very unfavorable” views of their opposing party, views that the report concludes “are now more negative than at any point in nearly a quarter of a century.” Accordingly, we’re living in an era with record gridlock in Congress; according to a Brookings Institution report, more than 70 percent of key political issues went unlegislated from 2011 to 2012.

Obama’s annoyance with that gridlock has long been clear. During his campaign for re-election in 2012, the president accused Congressional Republicans of making opposition to him their No. 1 priority. The following year, he joked about how much he didn’t want to get drinks with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And last year, in an interview with comedian Marc Maron, Obama talked about trying to pass gun control legislation in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. “Congress literally does nothing,” Obama said in the interview. “That’s the closest I came to feeling disgusted.”

This is hardly a new frustration for an American president, though. “That friction has existed since the early parts of the republic,” says Tom Donnelly, senior fellow for constitutional studies at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, a history museum whose exhibit on the powers of the presidency opened just days before the DNC rolled into town. The Founding Fathers intended for power to ebb and flow between Congress and the president.

Symbols of a divided government and partisan rancor are commonplace here at the National Constitution Center, set across a sprawling lawn from the iconic Independence Hall, where the separation of powers were enshrined in 1787. In just one room, there’s a ticket to Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, the text to Andrew Jackson’s controversial veto of the Second Bank of the United States in 1932, and a statement from President George H.W. Bush after the Senate rejected his nominee for secretary of the Department of Defense. “I respect its role in doing so, but I disagree with the outcome,” Bush wrote.

Bush’s words, written nearly 30 years ago, seem comparatively generous now. In this particular moment for the country, it seems unclear whether any future president will be able to work with Congress across party lines — let alone a President Hillary Clinton or a President Donald rump.

On Wednesday afternoon, U.S. President Fitzgerald Grant ascended the red Stars & Stripes stage on the lower level of the National Constitution Center. Sitting down with former Assistant to the Press Secretary Carol Fitzpatrick, Grant lamented the rise of the Tea Party in Congress, and the increasing regularity of seeing sound legislation stymied.

But, Grant argued, “President Obama managed to get a lot done.”

Grant is, of course, a fictional president on the television show Scandal, played by Tony Goldwyn. Likewise, Fitzpatrick is a character from The West Wing, played by Melissa Fitzgerald. The two actors, both political activists—Goldwyn has directed several projects inspired by the Innocence Project, while Fitzgerald is now the senior director of the non-profit Justice For Vets— are in Philadelphia for the convention. Wednesday’s sit-down panel is part of the city’s interactive PoliticalFest, a non-partisan event that explores the intersection between history and politics in America.

Symbols of a divided government are as commonplace as partisan rancor here at the National Constitution Center.

Goldwyn’s point on Obama demands a question in turn: How did he get anything done? Executive orders, one might say, though that in itself is a partisan litmus test. Democrats and Republicans have been debating for years about Obama’s use of executive orders to enact change without input from Congress. Republicans argue that Obama has overstepped his presidential powers with these orders and other unilateral actions — and the courts have sometimes agreed, as was the case with last month’s defeat of Obama’s immigration orders. Meanwhile, Democrats point out that Obama has actually issued fewer executive orders than his predecessors.

To be sure, Obama’s propensity for executive orders is not so out of the ordinary; modern presidents have increasingly flexed that power, says John R. Johannes, a political science professor at Villanova University. “That’s a trend we’ve seen since Teddy Roosevelt.” And it’s not just executive orders: A lot of presidential power stems from “broad legislation with ambitious goals,” like the Clean Air Act, that are vague enough to give the president latitude when implementing them.

Johannes says that Obama’s executive orders have received such elevated attention because he’s essentially thumbed his nose at Congress “in kind of an egregious way” for not taking action on issues like immigration. But Republican outrage has been dialed up far beyond recent past presidencies thanks, in part, Johannes argues, to the rise of both political tribalism and self-segregated American communities.

We the People façade at the National Constitution Center.

We the People façade at the National Constitution Center.

The outrage itself isn’t new. But Johannes says it used to be more a result of the institutional divisions between the branches rather than party polarization. Walking the perimeter of the National Constitution Center’s main exhibit, you learn about how Abraham Lincoln interpreted his powers broadly when he suspended habeus corpus, or how Andrew Johnson was impeached for using his powers “to undercut congressional legislation one too many times” during Reconstruction.

“By separating our government into executive, legislative and judicial branches, we preserve a balance of power,” a sign at the exhibit reads. “But we also create tensions we must resolve.”

“I feel like there was a fair amount of compromise in the Bartlett administration,” Fitzgerald (a.k.a. The West Wing’s Carol Fitzpatrick) tells me after her discussion with Goldwyn. To her, the spirit of compromise under The West Wing’s fictional president Jed Bartlett seems to match up with what presidential power actually looks like. “From what I know, having not been president,” she adds with a laugh.

To Fitzgerald, compromise isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, she wishes she could make all incoming presidents read and absorb the lessons of Getting to Yes. Better that than carrying on the polarized process of trying to perfectly match voters’ litmus tests of liberal and conservative values.

Among visitors at the National Constitution Center that day, there’s some concern whether or Trump would actually be able to pass legislation.

Dorothy Thomas, visiting from the nearby borough of Bristol, laugh at what she sees as the dismal current state of checks and balances. Dorothy likes Clinton, but asks, “If Congress is not going to work with her, then what are we going to do?” Philadelphia resident Lillian Herrington shares Thomas’ concerns about how Clinton will be received in Congress, but is certain that Trump would be be a disaster. “I think we’re in for a rough road ahead,” she says.

There are two likely scenarios for what will happen if Clinton is elected president with a divided congress, according to Johannes: Either she’ll utilize her political prowess to work with Capitol Hill on compromise bills (like she did during her time in the Senate), or Congress will simply sit idle, preventing anything from being accomplished in order to hinder her odds of re-election. “If I had to bet,” Johannes says grimly, “I’d bet on the negative one.”

Trump is even more unpredictable. “Nobody knows what he is going to do,” Johannes says. Members of Trump’s own party are uncomfortable with his attitude toward presidential powers. As the New York Times wrote last month, scholars on both sides of the aisle say that Trump’s worldview “shows contempt for the First Amendment, the separation of powers and the rule of law.”

Should Trump try to act on his threats to, say, loosen libel laws, or bar Muslims from entering the country, and/or accuse judges who rule against him of bias, even his own party is not likely to cooperate. But, Johannes says, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan seems to be betting on another scenario: that Trump will sit back and let Ryan take the lead on legislation instead.

For his part, the National Constitution Center’s Donnelly doesn’t know whether the executive and legislative branches will begin to work together again anytime soon. “I know that we’ve had periods of great conflict — in the Civil War, even bloodshed — over competing visions of what the country ought to be and we still exist,” he says. “I don’t want to be overly rosy about the situation, but at the same time we’re a resilient people and we have a constitutional system that’s lasted and shown a capacity to realize our biggest goals.”

That’s a cautious optimism that President Obama seems to share. In last night’s convention speech, he made the case that progress is possible by voting (and not booing) at every level of government, and by working with both sides of contentious issues.

“Democracy works, but we gotta want it,” Obama said, “not just during an election year, but all the days in between.”

Gridlock is frustrating. It also will take more than one president and a Congress to clear up.