President Obama taunted Republicans on Tuesday. “Middle-class families can’t wait for Republicans in Congress to do stuff,” he said. “So sue me.” He was referring to House Speaker John Boehner's proposed lawsuit charging that Obama has overstepped his executive authority. “As long as they’re doing nothing, I’m not going to apologize for trying to do something,” Obama added.
The president spoke at the Key Bridge that connects Virginia to Washington to make a point about infrastructure legislation that is currently stuck in Congress. But the combative talk offers a good lens through which to view this year’s midterm elections.
If you work in the White House, you will think that “so sue me” is a great line. It is a punchy way to show the president fighting and engaged on behalf of the middle class, and it makes a point that Obama aides have been trying to make since the State of the Union: that House Republicans are engaged in meaningless votes to repeal Obamacare, endless hearings, and now a lawsuit all to score political points, while the president is straining every muscle to work for the middle class. If the election becomes a referendum on an unpopular president, that's bad for Democrats. This construction asks voters—particularly the handful who will vote but remain undecided—to compare the president's efforts to the even more unpopular Republicans in Congress.
If you are a Republican, you also will think that “so sue me” is a great line, but for obviously different reasons. Boehner baited the president with the lawsuit, and the president bit. What better way to keep your motivated and angry voters with red in their eyes than this fresh example of Obama’s defiant arrogance?
But if you are a Democratic candidate in one of the crucial states that will determine whether Republicans take control of the Senate, it's not clear what to make of all this. On one hand, Democrats need motivation, so a pitched battle between the president and the Republican House reminds voters what the election is about—candidates fighting for the middle class versus partisan Republicans. It also makes the fight personal: Democrats are more likely to have Obama’s back if they’re properly focused with him as the targeted party.
On the other hand, this taunt is more likely to motivate the Republican base than Democratic voters. The anger at Obama that motivates Republican voters is a more powerful force than the threat of a Republican majority or promise of legislation that might help the middle class, both of which are possible election outcomes that might motivate Democratic voters. If you're an endangered Democrat this cycle, you probably live in one of the seven states in play that Obama lost to Romney, which means the field is already tilted against you. Plus, there's always the danger that a national debate about the president and what he has and hasn't done distracts from your effort to keep the race about local issues and the weakness of your opponent.
There has been some speculation on the right that the president is checked out. That doesn't seem to be true, as much as it feels like he's run out of options to make much progress on many issues. But his aides are trying hard—with events like the one in front of the Key Bridge on Tuesday—to show that the president is still out there battling every day. The lawsuit works in this way for the White House, too: Obama is so active that it’s enough to launch a lawsuit!
In the end, “so sue me” might become shorthand for the dysfunctional relationship between the president and Congress that has been a central part of his presidency. If so, the location was unintentionally perfect. The Key Bridge is often seized with unimaginable gridlock, from which it seems like you'll never escape.