Forget The President, He’s Not That Important (On Domestic Policy)
The interspheres have been aglow with the leaking of a planned spending freeze proposal by the Obama Administration. A run down of various opinions can be found in Scott’s post.
This is politics as usual, painful though it is to level that claim. And though I’m well aware of the danger in making predictions about politics, I think this announcement, more than the Brown victory, may be the moment to which people look back and see the place where the Obama dream died.
And in comment #3 (to that same post), North writes:
A lot of it is hinging on his State of the Union. If he manages to pull something remarkable and hit it out of the park then he may well turn things around. A lot of this will depend on what he decides to do leadership wise; if he tries to turn budget hawk and decides to let his HRC croak completely his base is going to revolt. If he can force HRC through and then starts clamping down on the budget I guess he might be able to thread the needle.
Now, I didn’t quote those passages to call those gentlemen out, just to note their language. Obama can (has to?) “force health care reform through….” and, of course, “the Obama dream.”
As somewhat of a side note, it might be worth noting the Canadian pedigree of both dudes (it also might not). As an American living in Canada, this is one aspect of American politics I can never seem to get across to non-Americans (in this case Canadians, but others as well): that we have a presidential, not a prime ministerial, system.
The President really has no influence on domestic policy. Presidents at best might be popular figures who become mouthpieces and/or salesmen for a policy that is already bubbling up from below the political ground. But they rarely dictate policy. Clinton failed to reform health care by trying to force a proposal through Congress. Obama has (possibly?) failed to reform health care by letting Congress lead. Or perhaps neither failed, and it’s Congress who stalled out both times, as it’s the legislature’s job to formulate domestic policy, not the President’s.
Sure, presidents get to appoint various department heads at places like the EPA, Justice, etc. and will choose people who they think will bring their style, tenor, outlook and so on to the job. And it makes some difference, I suppose, but there’s no real gap between appointments from members of the same party. I mean, if Hillary Clinton were President, I would guess that the Justice Department, The EPA, and Homeland Security would have pretty similar outlooks.
The only real power the executive has in terms of domestic policy is through institutions like The Treasury Department, appointing a Fed Chairman, and the like. Here Obama I think is definitely in for some well deserved criticism, but either way it’s much less influence and power than we normally assume a president holds. American presidents have essentially unlimited, near- monarchical power when it comes to foreign policy. There Obama has done exactly what he said he was going to do. But I haven’t lost any sense of the Obama Dream, mainly because I never really bought into any dream in the first place. At least with regard to domestic policy–since Presidents in my book have basically no power in that regard. Whether they should or not is a different question, but the reality is they don’t. I voted for Obama solely based on his foreign policy outlook, which – while far from perfect (from my view) – was vastly superior to John McCain’s.
Which leads to what I think is the rather ignorant focus by Democrats on this spending freeze idea. It’s particularly ignorant because this is occurring in the same week it has become manifestly clear how to pass the most important piece of legislation (from the Democratic point of view) since the 1960s: Namely, have the House pass the Senate HRC bill plus the so-called “sidecar” amendments from the Senate via reconciliation.
In other words, if you are a Democrat (or in favor of health care reofrm), why the hell do you care what Obama is doing or talking about with regard to spending freezes and his State of the Union address? It doesn’t matter one friggin’ bit. All the Democrats should worry about now is passing the health care bill. They should eat, sleep, drink, and think of nothing else except how to pass that bill.
The Democrats are going to take a hit, actually a series of them, in the 2010 midterm elections. My guess would be that will either officially lose the House or de facto lose the House through losing enough seats that their progressive wing won’t be able to get the votes it needs from its more centrist wing in order to pass liberal legislation.
Let’s get real, my recollection is that Obama said he had three major domestic priorities (as if his priorities mattered…but anyway here they are): health care, climate-energy bill, and education reform. He also discussed a middle class tax (which already has gone through).
Of those three, the climate bill has never really had a chance and at this point is certainly dead. Education reform who knows? The Economy has taken all the oxygen in the room, so it’s way down the list now. Health care was the only one that really ever had a chance (in a 1st term anyway) of passing.
Democrats have no sense of the long game. If you are going to take your hits, at least get something for it. While I don’t think the Senate Health Bill is the greatest thing ever written, I believe it’s certainly a major advance over the current state of affairs. And over the long haul, Democrats (as e.g. with Civil Rights legislation, Medicare) will gain a huge number of voters for passing the legislation. They are going to take a short term hit, no doubt, but this is their only chance. If they don’t pass the Senate bill, nothing will get passed.
Democrats have no sense of the long game because they aren’t Democrats. By that I mean, there is one united party known as The Democrats.
And this is the second reason why Obama is not a Prime Minster. He’s not the head of a united party. He’s the elected President from a party consisting of a series of interest groups whose relationship has always been fractured.
Arguably a Republican as President (on domestic policy) is a Prime Minister since he is the head of a united party. Bush didn’t really push the domestic agenda that he signed into law: e.g. tax cuts. Those come from the party apparatus. If a Republican is President while the Dems hold one or both houses of Congress (e.g. Reagan), then they make the deals they have to . Just as Clinton did and just as Obama will when the Republicans (as I think probably likely at this point) take over one/both of Congressional houses.
But when a Democrat is President with a Democratic majority in both Houses, The President is definitely not a Prime Minister. In this regard, Fareed Zakaria has it exactly backwards–Obama is acting exactly (on domestic issues) like a President and not a Prime Minister. Particularly since Obama is a Democrat with a Democratic Congress. His actions (on domestic policy) are essentially pre-written, given the constraints.
Remember as I always say, there are only two things you ever need to study in a Presidential candidate: biography (particularly political biography) and policy statements. The one thing you NEVER EVER EVER put any emphasis on nor trust in are: Campaign Slogans, Media Image, and the (ugh) Brand.
That unholy Presidential Trinity is a damned if you, damned if you don’t. You can’t get elected without them, especially in this media age; you can’t effectively govern once you’ve made them.
I’ve sometimes been called rather cynical in my political outlook, but the way I look at it, I never put extra faith (beyond what’s institutionally reasonable) in Presidents. Hence I never get disillusioned. I don’t have let down experiences either. My anger is always focused on Congress and The Two Parties. They I think constantly let down the population and fail to lead. Though in the end I also hold to the adage that the people get the government they deserve. And given my outlook on the US political class, you can only imagine how abysmally low is my opinion of the US population.