Perhaps this is just part of the natural cycle of gearing up to vote for him, despite everything, this November, but lately I have become much more sympathetic toward Obama. It’s customary in some quarters to view him as squandering the unprecedented mandate for radical change, etc., but I don’t think anyone is really taking seriously the extent to which our political system is designed from the ground up to make sure that mandates for radical change are squandered.
This isn’t some big secret — it’s what Americans learn in high school civics. The Founders, in their infinite wisdom, designed the system to be as unwieldy as possible, with as many bottlenecks as possible. The Senate has recently added another one, but purely procedural nonsense like the fillibuster has been a common feature of American political life throughout history (sometimes in the House, sometimes in the Senate). The fact is that we have two self-governing legislative bodies that must be brought into harmony in order to get anything done, and one of them is designed to be less responsive to popular pressure. The president does not have the power to change the procedural rules in either house of Congress.
But he’s the leader of his party, you might object. That would be a very effective objection if the American political system was designed to have strong parties, but it was, again, designed to thwart them. Obama is not dictator of the Democrats — especially when it comes to upper-level people like Senators, they’ve all assembled their own mini-coalition and come to power in a more or less entrepreneurial way. The Democratic National Committee does not select candidates in a top-down fashion. Instead, candidates self-select to run in the Democratic primary, which may or may not be limited to registered Democrats. And in the case of the Democrats, a lot of those candidates have self-selected to be “the reasonable person in the room who will be an independent voice and restrain liberal excesses,” etc., etc. Presumably “we” could run primary challenges against these centrists, but the track record for that is pretty poor — even a successful primary challenge was unable to dislodge Joe Lieberman.
But the Republicans are a more coherent party, you might object. Yes, and the last couple years have been a great example of how the system just breaks down when one party starts acting like a traditional, disciplined parliamentary party. The system wasn’t designed to have parties at all, if you’ll recall, and our current two-party system is an awkward overlay. Due to the nature of the constitutional system, divided government is more or less inevitable every once in a while, so that the two parties have to work together to get even the most basic things done (budgets, routine increases in the debt ceiling, etc.).
And don’t even get me started about how our unwieldy system of semi-autonomous states and municipalities was bound to screw up the stimulus — unless the federal government basically took over state and municipal finances indefinitely, which I’m not sure is either legal or feasible.
I’m not saying that Obama didn’t make mistakes or that he shouldn’t have tried for more. In fact, there are areas where he basically has a free hand that he’s done terribly at — I’m appalled at the drone warfare and the “war on terror” claims of executive power, and they seem to have actively undermined the effort to bring relief to underwater mortgages. But it seems to me that the kind of counterfactuals that people are gaming out basically would’ve required either a constitutional convention or a radical reworking of what an American political party is — or a coup.
Short of that, it seems that he exerted all the pressure he reasonably could within the system we have. At every step, he was as attentive as possible to the weirdness of the system, starting with the primaries. He pushed the discipline of the Democratic party as far as he could, for instance by naming as his point-man the guy to whom the younger and more centrist Democrats owed their jobs (Rahm Emanuel). He was willing to pay people off if necessary — remember when Ben Nelson demanded a special exemption for Nebraska from one of the provisions of health care reform? He was willing to exploit procedural loopholes when possible, as in using reconciliation to pass the health care reform bill (retrospectively making his odd insistence on making it deficit-reducing seem like a pretty good idea). And it seems like all the things that he could’ve done unilaterally would have just increased the executive power grab that, as I recall, we were all opposed to when Bush was president.
Again, this is not to say that Obama has turned out to be what I hoped for, nor that he hasn’t made any unforced errors — but it seems to me that any plausible counterfactual would be a more or less marginal change, nothing on the scale of single-payer healthcare or a coherent nation-wide public works program. Personally, I find it profoundly depressing that Obama is probably the best our political system can produce as things stand. But that’s how things seem to be, and I don’t know how we could make them better.