One of the more troublesome defenses of President Obama is that progressive critics want a "liberal Bush" as president - that we haven't learned from the abuse of executive power under Dubya and instead just want to do the same thing he did, but from the left instead of the right.
This view, most recently espoused by Jamelle Bouie at True/Slant, makes what I see as a deeply flawed reading of progressive views on the nature of the presidency. Reducing this to "Bush or failure" totally misunderstands the nature and background of progressive criticism of the Obama Administration's lack of success.
Here's the heart of Bouie's argument, which is really just another restatement of the deeply questionable "weak president" theory:
Chait smartly points out that this “liberal despair” comes mainly from a cultish view of the presidency. In this view, Congress is a near-ancillary actor, and all initiative and all action comes from the White House. When bills fail, it’s because the president didn’t try hard enough (or didn’t care). Of course, that’s ridiculous; when it comes to domestic policy, U.S presidents are fairly weak actors, and have to contend with a host of constraints, limitations and competing priorities. As Jonathan Bernstein has noted again and again, the president is weak, really.
This notion of a "weak president" is central to the Obama defenders' efforts to knock down progressive criticism, with Bernstein's work being repeatedly cited as evidence that this view is somehow widely shared by political scientists.
But it isn't. The Bernstein thesis flies in the face of decades of research on the strong presidency, which was always latent in the Constitution but emerged in our present form under FDR - more on him in a moment. Since the 1930s almost all political scientists would agree that the Executive Branch has become the dominant force in American politics, through a combination of the reshaping of how the president's Constitutional powers are used, and through the emergence of the president as the most important political force in the federal government through other factors outside the Constitution.
Political scientists often distinguish between the president's formal and informal power. The formal, Constitutional powers are quite strong. The president can propose a budget, enact regulations, conducts foreign policy, and commands the troops. Most significantly, the president can veto Congressional legislation, and Congress's ability to override it is quite limited, with 2/3 majorities being hard to come by in a situation where the two parties are fairly evenly matched.
The informal powers of the president boost executive power considerably. In a mass media environment, one man (and sadly, it's always been a man) has more ability to set an agenda and provide political leadership than 535 members of Congress. Even the Speaker of the House doesn't have that kind of public persona. And although Speaker Pelosi is one of the most effective Speakers in quite some time, she doesn't have the ability to set an agenda or influence public perceptions of policy debates the way the president does.
Boule argues that Americans are trained by TV and the media to see the president as almost a dictator whose Congress just goes along for the ride. While this is something of a caricature, it's also something that has to be considered in the assessment of presidential power. If Americans actually do believe this, then the president really is the dominant political force in government, despite the Constitution's design of separate and equal powers. Political power is not at all limited to what was written down in 1787, and anyone who thinks it is quite simply has no understanding of how politics actually works. They'd certainly have flunked the American Government and Politics classes I've taught, and would likely do so in almost any other collegiate classroom.
Bouie goes on to argue that the Bush era has essentially warped progressive views of executive power:
I’d also add that the optics of President Bush may have changed liberals’ perception of what the president can do. At every turn, we either heard that President Bush was doing “X” thing, or claiming “X” power, and without the context of a unified Republican Congress or a pliant executive branch, it was easy to believe that Bush was accomplishing these things through sheer force of will, when he simply wasn’t. And after Bush, what many liberals really wanted a “liberal Bush,” not realizing that Bush wasn’t nearly as successful as he was portrayed, and that the president isn’t nearly as powerful as they think.
This is the "it's Bush or nothing" argument, and it also misreads progressive thinking on both Obama and the presidency. It's not Bush that shapes progressive views on presidential power - it's FDR, and to a lesser extent, LBJ and Ronald Reagan. Those three presidents, likely the most effective of the 20th century, showed the power of the presidency to set and implement an agenda of change within the bounds of the Constitution.
FDR set the tone in the 1930s. He was not an ideologue, but a deeply pragmatic deal-maker who nevertheless understood the need for bold action to end the Depression - and the need to aggressively sell the public on that need.
LBJ provided a more recent model. He was a master political tactician (like FDR) and was especially effective at getting legislation through Congress. LBJ's breaking of the filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was legendary and instructive on how the presidency can use its constitutional role as well as its informal powers to change what happens in Congress.
Reagan too shows progressives what can be done. Reagan, like FDR, was quite pragmatic and cut a lot of deals with a Democratic Congress. But Reagan's true legacy was his skillful use of the public perceptions of the White House to advance and ultimately win the ideological arguments of the day, to reorient American politics around a conservative agenda.
Progressives want a president who can combine these three models into something appropriate for the 21st century. There's no actual evidence whatsoever that we want a "liberal Bush," a "decider" who treats the Constitution like a joke.
More importantly, progressive critics of Obama actually understand pretty well the limitations on Obama's ability to produce change. Our criticism is that Obama is unwilling to do anything about it - and instead actively defends a flawed system.
The root of the problem in American politics is that our system has become deeply corrupt, with large corporations blocking innovation and economic recovery in defense of a failed status quo. Their primary tool is the United States Senate, which is a failed institution in need of radical reforms, if not outright abolition (which is impossible without writing a new Constitution).
The Senate is the great obstacle to the implementation of a progressive agenda. So why are progressives upset with Obama? Because he won't act like Bush and disregard the Constitution to ram his agenda through?
Hardly. With the 20th century presidents as a model, progressives want Obama to use both the formal and informal powers at his disposal to address the dysfunctional Senate before it costs Democrats at the November election and jeopardizes Obama's own re-election, not to mention providing the economic recovery we so desperately need.
Instead, we see Obama not only doing nothing about the Senate, but actively collaborating with its worst actors to reinforce its worst tendencies. Instead of making the case to the American people for change, Obama makes the case to the American people for business as usual.
What many of us would like Obama to do is blend FDR, LBJ, and Reagan in dealing with the Senate. For example, on the economy. Obama was urged by his own economic advisors to propose a stimulus well over $1 trillion. Instead, he proposed a too-weak stimulus for fear of Congress's reaction. Obama rejected the FDR and Reagan approach of starting with a bold move that forced Congress to react, and instead pre-compromised with himself.
When the Maine twins and Arlen Specter then gutted that stimulus, Obama went along without a peep, despite the fact that they gutted some of the most important elements of the stimulus, such as the aid to state governments. Since then, efforts at new stimulus have been blocked in the Senate, and the White House has said they will no longer try to push new stimulus through.
What should have been done instead? Taking a page from FDR, Obama should have argued for as bold an effort as possible, and proposed as large a stimulus as possible. If Congress did whittle it down, they'd have ended up at a larger sum than they eventually got.
Taking a page from Reagan, Obama should have loudly and persistently criticized the Senators who tried to whittle down the stimulus, instead of going along with them, using his high approval ratings to mobilize public opinion against Senate obstruction.
Taking a page from LBJ, Obama should have privately threatened to veto or block the spending and legislative priorities of those Senators obstructing the big stimulus if they persisted in a filibuster threat.
Those would likely have produced a bigger and therefore better stimulus, which in turn would have helped the American people in a time of distress and boosted Obama's own political position. Obama could still do some combination of this today to push new stimulus, but instead meekly accepts the Senate's failure.
Health care played out this way as well. Instead of pushing back hard against Ben Nelson's extraordinarily destructive undermining of the bill, Obama chose to accommodate it with the notorious "Cornhusker kickback" that crashed Democratic poll numbers in December 2009 and played a major role in the loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Obama's eventual solution was instructive: embracing the use of a legislative tool designed to get around the undemocratic filibuster rule. Obama has since shown himself to be quite unwilling to go back to the reconciliation well again.
Of course, we should never have expected anything different. Obama is so deferential to the Senate and its procedures and attitudes that he made his only appearance on Daily Kos to attack us for demanding something different - namely, that Senate Democrats refuse to confirm John Roberts, a demand we have been proven absolutely right to have made.
There are other objections to the argument Bouie makes, including the numerous ways in which Obama has used his own powers to continue the Bush legacy, including his support for continuing some of Bush's practices on civil liberties and the legal process for suspected terrorists.
We don't want a "liberal Bush." Instead we want someone who will not be content with the status quo. Who won't use their rhetorical gifts to reinforce a conservative message. Who will use the powers of their office and the informal powers of their prominent position in politics to provide the leadership that can help us break the logjam in the Senate to bring the change and help that the American people desperately need.
It shouldn't be necessary to misunderstand presidential power and to misinterpret progressive attitudes on the presidency to have this conversation. Unfortunately, some seem intent on delegitimizing progressive criticism of the president through whatever means possible, and claiming we want a "liberal Bush" is one way to attempt it. It's not accurate, and judging by the conversation, it's not even working.