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.

Scott writes:

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.

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8 thoughts on “Forget The President, He’s Not That Important (On Domestic Policy)

    • I don’t think so, insofar as I said that on foreign policy Presidents have near dictatorial powers. It’s a bizarre combination of strength and weakness.

      My beef with the Republicans was tax cuts (but any GOP President with a GOP House + Senate was bound to do that).

      My beef with Bush was the war in Iraq, the torture policies, essentially abandoning Afghanistan, his neocon rhetoric/posturing, his over-emphasis on democracy promotion, and inability to have a followup plan to 2 wars. Those were on him. Another Republican President presumably could have done differently on that front. And/or a Democratic president.

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  1. This is a good post, there is a lot to what you are saying. The presidency has grown over the last few decades into a quasi daddy, moral and spiritual leader and best buddy. It is easier to tell a story about one person who runs everything then about the complex dynamics and rules of various groups of people.

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  2. Actually, I think you’re right. If the commie-dems don’t pass THIS HCR bill they’re toast. Ironically, the stupid/cowardly Republicans don’t even have to fight, the citizenry are doing a fine job of it.

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  3. My lord, I got a shout out! Or is it a call out? I think I’ll just drink some more until I convince myself it’s a shout out. Mmmmm sweet vermouth, thanks Chris! (What’s truly sad is that I’m at work so I’m getting cyber drunk on imaginary booze.)

    Now to the meat and potatoes, I agree Chris and frankly the post you’ve quoted me on is sloppily written to be kind. I have a tendency to talk about Presidents like they are Prime Ministers from time to time but believe me I’m keenly aware of lack of genuine legal power that the president actually possesses office wise.

    While I’m agreeing I’d like to add that I also agree on priorities, campaigning, promises and global warming (I hope you’re right actually, I’ve always loathed Cap’n Trade).

    Now that I’ve agreed with you I’m going to proceed to say that it doesn’t matter and I also disagree with you. An amusing aside, I used to answer all my counterpoints like the sainted Dan Akroyd but I think that if I lead off with “Chris you ignorant slut” then Scott would come after my tophap with his beady little Canadian eyes and grasping pale Canadian little Gollum hands so I won’t.

    Agreeing as I do that in terms of literal power I perhaps have misrepresented Obama’s rights I pivot now and assert that, contra Chris, (who is neither ignorant nor a slut, I love you sir [platonically]) Obama possesses a considerable amount of power that is not necessarily legal or formal but instead informal. In this arena, furthermore, I assert that Obama has been committing political malpractice that Democrats can rightly be furious with him about (while not at all letting their spineless congresslizards off the hook of course). Obama is politically though not literally the leader of his party. If you were to ask anyone who follows politics casually to name the head of the Dem party you can be sure that the name that would follow would begin with an O or a B, not a H, R, n nor even a P. As president, particularly as a Democratic president Obama is in essence the leader of the party. His administration should act as sort of the central command of the sprawling madcap structure of the party (and I stand second to none in agreeing with you that the Democrats as technically an amalgam of two parties or at least one and a half). In this informal role as leader and coordinator Obama and his administration have been failing abysmally. The writing about Coakley was on the wall well before it was lost (my graveyard incredulous whistling notwithstanding) and Obama should have at least had a contingency plan in place for what happened if that seat were lost. The Whitehouse has instead been a stammering contradictory wreck in terms of message since that event. Obama commands the bully pulpit of the party. More, he still commands not insignificant public support (more than the congressional Dems or Republicans at least) and has a lot of influence. It is well within his power to have been working the phones calling up reluctant congressmen and congresswomen. Hell he has an absolute pitbull in Emanuel on staff who he could let loose on Congress. The point is that as leader it is Obama’s power, politically not legally, to either sound a charge or sound a retreat. Obama has done neither, throwing off contradictory signals alternatively combative, panicked, retreating or merely aloof. His allies in congress are in disarray, frankly Pelosi has done remarkable yeowomans work in keeping her caucus as under control as she has.

    Obama has shown a remarkable amount of hands offedness in this year. In some ways, particularly on the heels of our previous unitary executive this is refreshing but it has begun to become stale and it’s beginning to look not so much like principal as cowardice or an unwillingness to state a preference for fear of looking partisan or for fear of loosing. A lot of the house members who are balking or dragging their feet came into congress with Obama. He has influence with them. The base is angry and worried but they believe in him, even the populace does to, so he has influence with them. His silence has served him ill. He needs to put a hand on the helm. He needs to chart a direction. He needs to lead. I’ve been charitably assuming that he decided to wait until the State of the Union to do so. If he doesn’t I’ll assume that he is as shallow and weak as we Hillary supporters feared.

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  4. /Emily Litella: What’s all this uproar about Hilary R Clinton and Bill? I don’t see why the President wants to ram Mrs. Clinton _or_ let her croak! And why should Congress have anything to do with it? And what does Bill have to do with it? Personally, I wish the President would start to work on Health Care Reform instead and leave Mrs. Clinton alone – hasn’t she suffered enough? And another thing… [whisper, whisper] but they kept saying HRC bill, not HCR bill.. Oh.. Never mind!

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  5. I broadly agree with this admonition, but I have to say I have been rather mystified and even dismayed not just by the policy capitulation we seem to be getting leading up to the seech, but just as much by the apologetic tone of it — witness this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/27/us/politics/27obama.html?ref=politics

    I completely grant that the Prez’ actual pull on the Hill tends to ebb and flow at an overall very low level, and that’s largely as it should be, and therefore I tend to come down with those who say his lack (alleged) of a sales campaign on health care is not primarily to blame for the state of the effort tonight (though he really has been quite notably absent on it since Jan 19th), but it nevertheless is, or was, a grand American political tradition that a president will march up to the Capitol on a January or February evening and demand passage of his signature legislation — without delay! Members of his poarty would leap to their feet and cheer, after which usually Congress would proceed to reward the president’s trip of a few blocks with… zilch, or very little more than zilch. I don’t see that this president’s standing is currently so damaged that the tradition couldn’t be upheld this year. Does the president somehow think that a tentative, apologetic tone is called for because, unlike what is the norm for such exchanges, he actually believes a health care deal is still possible and that ti some extent it rides on his performance tonight? Here I agree wholeheartedly with Chris: he certainly overestimates the importance of how he is received in the chamber, as compared how the impression a show of resolve on the issue might make in American homes could change the dynamics of the legislative morass in which the bill currently finds itself. To that end, certainly enthusiasm(!) and resolve, not caution and conciliation, are clearly what is called for. He can’t change a single Representative’s or Senator’s set of incentives tonight, nor therefore his or her reaction to same, without doing something to change, however slightly, the public’s view of the bill. He doesn’t have to (can’t) make it popular tonight, but he needs to absorb some of its radioactivity so that a few more representatives can think about voting for it. Apologizing for it will only further crater the public’s confidence level in the legislation. He’d be insane to take that tack. If he doesn’t think he can in honesty say, “This bill is good for the country, a completely necessary step for our economic security, and must be passed without delay! [those last are the key words, and represent the bare minimum statement MUST pass his lips before God-blessing-America],” then he ought to declare the effort dead and call for Congress to start over around a different plan. Enough said.

    In short, I hope I’m reading too much into that Zeleny piece.

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