In an uncharacteristically substantive column a couple of Sundays ago, the NY Times’ s Maureen Dowd lambasted President Obama for a willful failure to work the system. If he had deigned to get down to the muck of politics to sell his gun control agenda to Congress, he could have hoped for success. Instead, he was satisfied to make some fine-sounding speeches, as if he believed his obviously right position should sell itself. Obama is just too aloof and self-righteous to barter and dicker and threaten the way really effective presidents do.
Dowd, in turn, was excoriated by various Internet commentators for lack of realism. For a whole variety of reasons, presidents just don’t have the carrots and the sticks that they once had to cajole Congress into passing their agenda. Nor has any president faced anything like the determined, intransigent obstructionism that the Republicans have mounted against Obama. Obama may not be a master operator, but even if he were LBJ it wouldn’t have made much difference anyway, on gun control or anything else.
Dowd was mostly wrong and her critics mostly right. Yes, Obama might have corralled one or two more votes in the Senate on background checks--former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell has suggested that newly elected Sen. Heidi Heidkamp could have been turned--but there is no way Obama could have gotten to the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.
And that goes for everything else. The harsh reality is that with the possible exception of immigration reform, Obama is not going to get any significant progressive legislation out of Congress for the rest of his presidency. Of course, he can’t say that--no president is going to proclaim his impotence--but he almost surely knows that.
The single most important explanation for the president’s discouraging prospects is the radicalization of the Republican party. Today’s Republicans are unlike any other major party in American history: a party that is substantially united around a genuinely radical (i.e., reactionary) agenda. If you think I exaggerate, look at the Ryan budget, which in its various versions has gotten the fairly unanimous support of Republicans in Congress. Ryan would de-fund and thereby eviscerate large swaths of the federal government. He would substantially return this country to the 1920s, when government stayed out of the way and let big business run the place. (For purely pragmatic reasons, Ryan’s latest would allow Social Security and Medicare to survive, but we all know that in his Eyn Randian heart of hearts, he would love to strangle both of these programs.)
The Republicans’ reactionary radicalism goes beyond policy and ideology to tactics and strategy. Never before has any party systematically abused the Senate rules as the Republicans have since losing control of that chamber in 2006. Never has any opposition party routinely employed one or another form of extortion--notably, threatening to blow up the world economy over the debt limit--as an acceptable political tactic. Nor has it ever been standard practice to deliberately cripple federal agencies (e.g., the NLRB, the new financial consumer watchdog agency) by refusing to approve presidential appointees.
So what’s a president to do? What Obama can do is name the problem. He can clearly explain the gulf that separates his own moderate liberal public philosophy from the Republicans’ reactionary radicalism. He has done that in the past, but only sporadically; he needs to do it consistently, repeatedly. Obama’s best chance of leaving a significant legacy is to be remembered as the Reagan of the center-left. Reagan successfully led a re-shaping of political debate in this country, defining government as the problem, not the solution, to our problems. He did that not by making a speech or two, but by returning again and again, tirelessly, to his theme. Unfortunately, that’s just not Obama, who prefers to de-emphasize ideology. Rather than crystallize the differences between himself and his adversaries, Obama’s instinct is to seek accommodation by seeking common ground, even when there is little to be found. Hopefully by now he must realize that that path leads to a dead end: there is no compromising with people who think that compromise is evil.