Monday, March 30, 2009

Does Obama Have What It Takes To Be A Truly Transformative President?


Neither the New Republic nor Jonathan Chait is exactly a trusted source but in the former the latter addresses the interesting Republican-pushed question about why Democrats can't govern. Chait, of course, blames Democrats, rather than Republicans, for failures suffered by Clinton, Carter and, he seems to hope, Obama. "The contours of failure," he warns "are now clearly visible" and the fault lies with the congressional arm of the Democratic Party which "remains mired in fecklessness, parochialism, and privilege." I bet Chait wishes they were just like Republicans and did exactly what they were told by Dear Leader, completely abandoning any pretense of being a separate but equal branch of government.
George W. Bush came to office having lost the popular vote, with only 50 Republicans in the Senate. After his disputed election, pundits insisted Bush would have to scale back his proposed massive tax cuts for the rich. Instead, Bush managed to enact several rounds of tax cuts that substantially exceeded those in his campaign platform, along with two war resolutions, a Medicare prescription drug benefit designed to maximize profits for the health care industry, energy legislation, education reform, and sundry other items. Whatever the substantive merits of this agenda, its passage represented an impressive feat of political leverage, accomplished through near-total partisan discipline.

Obama has come into office having won the popular vote by seven percentage points, along with a 79-seat edge in the House, a 17-seat edge in the Senate, and massive public demand for change. But it's already clear he is receiving less, not more, deference from his own party. Democrats have treated Obama with studied diffidence, both in their support for the substance of his agenda and (more importantly) their willingness to support it procedurally.

Let's look for a moment at one of the newly elected Democratic senators, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, one of the first to eagerly join the Evan Bayh anti-Obama bloc. She went running to the media this weekend triangulating against Obama's agenda for change, sounding not unlike North Carolina's highly unpopular (and likely to loose his re-election) Richard Burr. Eager to prove her conservative bona fides, Hagan said that the president's budget proposal is... just fill in whichever talking points you've heard from McConnell, Boehner or Burr lately.
Hagan, drawing a contrast from the nation's top Democrat, said she has been working to limit the growth in non-defense spending in the budget. She questioned the Obama plan that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would place the country under a $1.2 trillion annual deficit even a decade from now.

"I agree with a number of ideas in President Obama's budget, but I was particularly concerned about the deficit spending in his proposal," Hagan said in a speech at the North Carolina Associated Press Broadcast annual meeting at Elon University. "It's completely unsustainable and unacceptable."

Her decision to renounce even some of the popular president's ideas comes as a striking contrast to her campaign last year, when she cozied to his mantra of change as North Carolina voters swept both into office. It underscores her eagerness to depart from the large-government plans of her party even as she tries to influence legislation as a backbencher in Washington's upper chamber.

Americans United For Change is running TV and radio ads in media markets represented by reactionary Democrats like Hagan (as well as North Carolina House members Bob Etheridge and Mike McIntyre):
For eight years, the Bush administration turned our economy into a house of cards.

Last fall, that house came tumbling down.

Now, President Obama has drawn up a budget blueprint that will rebuild our economy on a solid foundation.
Jobs. Health Care. Education. Clean energy. Reform.

On this foundation, we can build real long-term economic prosperity for all Americans.

Call Congress, tell them to support President Obama's budget. Let's all get to work, rebuilding America.

Not exactly a call to arms or declaration of war against right-wing Democrats, but enough to piss off Hagan, apparently. And there are plenty of Democratic electeds just as tone deaf as Hagan-- willfully unaware that the American people just went to the polls and chose "Change" and rejected "More of the Same." Even the right-leaning doofus Obama picked to head the DNC, outgoing Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia has vowed to sign a bill to ban stem cell research!

My friend Andrew pointed me to Robert Kuttner's new book Obama's Challenge as a way of looking at the opportunity Obama has to have a truly transformative presidency, one that would have to include the cooperation of the Kay Hagans and Evan Bayhs in Congress.
Suppose Obama does embrace a transformative program. What are its political prospects? Here is where leadership makes all the difference.

 Although it takes sixty votes in the Senate to break a filibuster, great presidents have demon-strated that a chief executive with a principled position, a compelling program, and a popular mandate can win over opposition votes. LBJ relied on moderate Republicans to enact civil rights laws over the objection of conservative Democrats, and then turned to racially conservative Dixiecrats in his own party to pass Medicare over the protests of Republicans. Lincoln presided over a shifting coalition of Radical Republicans, more prudent Republicans, and moderate borderstate and northern Democrats. One of the reasons he seemed to tack back and forth was precisely his need to hold that coalition together. But as he became a surer leader, he led and his “team of rivals” increasingly followed-- as did the citizenry.
With close to sixty Democratic senators and an increased Democratic majority in the House, Obama will be able to win over Congress if he first wins over the country. That was the pattern with Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. It describes Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt as well.
The numbers are also deceptive. Roosevelt, in his first term when the famous First Hundred Days saw the most sweeping and breakneck enactment of legislation in American history, had just fifty-nine Democratic senators, only about the average of the past eight decades. Johnson had a bigger Senate Democratic majority of sixty-eight at its peak, though like Roosevelt, his nominal partisan majority included at least fifteen racially reactionary Dixiecrats who were a de facto third party inside the Democratic Party (many of whom also held key committee chairmanships).
By contrast, while today’s congressional Democratic Party includes some economic centrists who are fiscally conservative and close to business lobbies, the most conservative Democratic senators-- Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Max Baucus (Montana), Ben Nelson (Nebraska), and Bill Nelson (Florida)-- are somewhat to the left of the Dixiecrats that Roosevelt and Johnson had to reckon with. Even the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs are less anti-spending than anti-deficit.

Now the question is, does Obama have what it takes to be a truly transformative leader? The U.S. hasn't had one in quite a while. And thanks to George W. Bush, we're overdue, if not desperate.

Labels: , , , ,


At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

More than a bit unfair to Hagan, who won in a moderate-to-conservative state against a candidate who was questioning her conservative religious values. I'm not arguing that Hagan comes within 10 miles of being an economist, but her response shows she knows how to play to the folks back home. Who just elected her, and need to see that she's one of them.

What I want to know is what the White House is doing to sweeten matters for Hagan, assuming it's doing anything of the kind. After that kiss-ass display to the Republicans that yielded nothing, you would think Obama's administration would be working overtime behind the scenes to throw bones to these Blue Dogs.

At 1:13 AM, Blogger Vincetastic said...

This is a wonderful post, I especially like the picture of the Obama shoes. I think Barack is doing a pretty decent job and has taken many steps to show that he is serious about eliciting change in the Executive Office. I think that there are still a lot of challenges, and you can expect that it will not always be easy and that he will have to make many tough and unpopular decisions. People might enjoy this list of the top ten signs the president’s gig is harder than you thought:

At 9:50 PM, Anonymous McFee said...

Surely FDR's 59 Democrat senators constituted a filibuster-proof majority at the time, there being only 48 states and 96 senators.

Is this right or am I missing something obvious?


Post a Comment

<< Home