Is America Governable?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 9, 2010


Why, of course it is, Paul Krugman’s histrionics notwithstanding. But to the extent that President Obama has had problems governing it, he need only look into the mirror to find a culprit for his Administration’s political failings, as Jay Cost points out.

We start, of course, with an obvious point, yet one that appears to have escaped some people:

The President’s two major initiatives – cap-and-trade and health care – have failed because there was not a broad consensus to enact them. Our system is heavily biased against such proposals. That’s a good thing.

It’s not accurate to blame this on the Republicans. From Arlen Specter’s defection to Scott Brown’s swearing in, Democrats had total control over the policy-making process. The only recourse the Republicans had was the First Amendment. They used it well, but don’t let it be said that the President lacked access to it. Given Mr. Obama’s bully pulpit and his omnipresence on the national stage, his voice has been louder than anybody’s. If Mr. Obama has lost the public debate to the beleaguered rump that is the congressional GOP, he has nobody to blame but himself.

The funny thing, of course, is that immediately upon attainment of the 60-vote majority, we started hearing from various Democratic politicians, and pundits, that 60 votes was just not enough, that there would be slippage, that the Democrats might still fail to get things done, that they really needed 67 or 68 votes, etc. The arguments were ludicrous then, and they are ludicrous now; no President, or Congressional majority leadership class would be anything but overjoyed to have 60 votes of their own party in the Senate. The only downside to having 60 votes on one’s side is that one no longer has excuses for failure. And that means that if the Obama Administration could not produce with 60 votes, then it is the Obama Administration–and the President, specifically–who ought to take the blame.

The President has now taken to telling his fellow Democrats that 59 votes, while not filibuster-proof, is still pretty darned good. In fact, he said as much in the State of the Union Address, stating “I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.” He’s quite right, which means that if Democrats do end up “run[ning] for the hills,” the President ought to bear the responsibility for that, as should members of the Congressional leadership.

Cost also debunks a separate effort to scapegoat a certain group for the Administration’s political problems:

It’s not accurate to blame this on “spineless Democrats,” i.e. rank-and-file legislators who balked at the various solutions offered by Mr. Obama. Moderate Democrats might have defected because they were worried about their jobs – but the point of popular elections is to link the personal interests of legislators with the interests of their constituents. It often fails to work – but in a situation where “spineless Democrats” clearly voted with their districts, it seems to have been working pretty well. One might argue that they should have shown some leadership – voted for unpopular bills because they were good for the country. But ask those thirty to forty House Democratic defectors on the health care, cap-and-trade, and jobs bills whether they thought the bills were good for the country, and you’ll hear a different answer than the one Newsweek is quick to give.

And finally, Cost points out that it is not right to blame the American people for this state of affairs, though of course, it would be funny if the Democrats tried to do so in an election year.

Barack Obama’s problem is that he has allowed the Congressional leadership to run things in his name on the Hill. As Cost states, this gives Nancy Pelosi a lot of power, and since Pelosi is more left than center, it should come as no surprise that much of the legislation coming out of Congress is more left than center, thus alienating Congress and the Administration from the American people. This failing is the key one.

Cost also argues that the President was wrong to seek “comprehensive reform,” but here, I part company with him; the President’s decision to seek “comprehensive reform” in his first year is in keeping with the fact that the President is rarely as powerful and influential in domestic affairs as he is in his first year. I don’t blame Barack Obama for thinking that he could have achieved “comprehensive reform” in his first year, given the fact that he started his first year with a great deal of political capital. His problem is that he did not spend that capital wisely by taking ownership of the reforms he sought to push. Rather, he abdicated responsibilities to Congress, and got back bills that were not to the liking of the American public as a consequence.

On the issue of partisan obstruction, of course, I am back on the Cost bandwagon; one cannot really make a case that the Republicans have just decided to sabotage the Obama Administration when the President loses GOP moderates like Mike Castle and Olympia Snowe. These people have a lot more latitude to depart from the GOP party line, given that they need to appeal to independents more than does the typical GOP Representative or Senator, in order to ensure that they get re-elected. And yet, they had problems with the legislation that the Obama Administration was cheering for, and trying to get enacted into law. It may be easy to say that the evil Republicans are the ones bringing the Obama Administration to grief, but at some point, the President must admit to himself that all has not gone well with his own political operations.

The problem, of course, is that while “GOP obstructionism!” can be reduced to a pithy five-second argument–which is just perfect fodder for the media–arguments like Cost’s, valid though they are, require time and energy to explain. I wish it were otherwise; like the President, the media needs to face up to the fact that while America is plenty governable, the President has not done well in governing it.

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