The Limits of the ‘It’s Obama’s Fault’ Narrative

Bush didn’t steamroll Congress, either

Kevin Drum had an interesting post yesterday building off the observation that at the recently-concluded Netroots Nation, enthusiasm was markedly lower than in 2008—probably because the assembled liberal bloggers, so full of hope and enthusiasm last year, are presently watching the agenda they supported run smack into the status quo machine that is Washington, D.C.

Drum, a diehard but mild-mannered liberal who never got carried away with his expectations for an Obama presidency, offers a useful corrective to this frustration: None of what’s happening at the moment is very surprising, and for all the liberal disillusionment with President Obama at the moment, “this isn’t just a liberal problem.” As Drum writes:

9/11 and the Iraq war masked a lot of this during George Bush’s first term, but conservatives ended up feeling the same way before long. They wanted a revolution, but instead they got NCLB. And a wimpy stem cell compromise. And Sarbanes-Oxley. And McCain-Feingold. And a huge Medicare expansion. And complete gridlock on Social Security.

Not exactly what they signed up for… [Conservatives] got most of what they wanted on the national security front (missile defense, big Pentagon budget increases, a couple of nice wars), but on the domestic front most of them felt like Bush ended up delivering almost nothing.

Drum concludes that “Washington DC is a tough place to get anything done,” and though he doesn’t specify it, there’s a very good reason for that: Congress, and especially the Senate, whose very purpose is to prevent things from happening. In areas in which Congress, by dint of tradition or the Constitution, has a limited role—such as foreign policy, judicial appointments, or the setting of regulatory priorities—change can happen with alacrity. Not coincidentally, those are the areas in which Bush delivered the most to his conservative base.

On the domestic policy front, meanwhile, other than No Child Left Behind, Bush’s biggest legislative accomplishments—tax cuts and revisions to the bankruptcy laws—dovetailed with the Senate’s demonstrated heightened sensitivity to the interests of affluent constituents. Without that boost, the Bush administration, for all its famed message discipline, didn’t force that much through the legislative branch—and he had a friendly majority in 2005, when he attempted to dismantle Social Security.

It’s worth remembering this at a point when the rapidly coalescing media narrative—both in the mainstream press and from liberal-leaning outlets—is that Obama and his team have bungled their push for health care reform by compromising too readily, or not articulating and sticking to a vision more forcefully. It’s easy to find support for criticisms of the White House—certainly, the administration’s shifting positions on the “public option,” and its denials that any such shifts have occurred, have been painful to watch.

But much of this criticism proceeds from the assumption that a different approach—either more detailed, or more aggressively partisan, or more specific and straightforward—would have commanded majority support in Congress. Where’s the evidence for that assumption? It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that Obama was winning approving notice for adopting “an entirely different theory of how to exercise presidential power” than the one that had failed Bill Clinton.

This close scrutiny to “theories of power” suggests that there is one that can be counted on to work—but history shows that no matter what strategy is employed, a president has only limited power over Congress. (This is a point that some commenters seem to miss, even as they stumble upon it. As MSNBC’s Howard Fineman sees it, the top question historians will ask about 2009 is: “How did a gifted, charismatic young Democrat — who won the White House by a large margin and brought in huge congressional majorities — manage NOT to enact fundamental health care reform, a goal his party has been seeking since Truman?” The same set of facts could be rephrased as: “Why did so many people think this young Democratic president would succeed where every other one since World War II had failed?”)

Given the current configuration of Congress, the fate of health care is likely to depend, in the end, on the incentives confronting conservative Democrats. If they feel that passage of a particular version of “health care reform” will strengthen their re-election prospects in 2010 or 2012, it will probably pass. If they don’t, it almost certainly won’t. The president, of course, has a role to play in trying to shift those incentives by swaying public opinion. But that’s an indirect route to influence, and one in which he’s competing with a lot of other people who know how to play this game.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.