Friday, January 15, 2010

The Wrath of Action

Charles Krauthammer has a strong column up exploring the political situation President Obama has found himself in. He identifies a major cause for the fall of Obama's popularity as the unpopularity of his ideas:

The health-care drive is the most important reason Obama has sunk to 46 percent. But this reflects something larger. In the end, what matters is not the persona but the agenda. In a country where politics is fought between the 40-yard lines, Obama has insisted on pushing hard for the 30. And the American people -- disorganized and unled but nonetheless agitated and mobilized -- have put up a stout defense somewhere just left of midfield.

Ideas matter. Legislative proposals matter. Slick campaigns and dazzling speeches can work for a while, but the magic always wears off.

It's inherently risky for any charismatic politician to legislate. To act is to choose and to choose is to disappoint the expectations of many who had poured their hopes into the empty vessel -- of which candidate Obama was the greatest representative in recent American political history.

Obama did not just act, however. He acted ideologically. To his credit, Obama didn't just come to Washington to be someone. Like Reagan, he came to Washington to do something -- to introduce a powerful social democratic stream into America's deeply and historically individualist polity.

Perhaps Obama thought he'd been sent to the White House to do just that. If so, he vastly over-read his mandate. His own electoral success -- twinned with handy victories and large majorities in both houses of Congress -- was a referendum on his predecessor's governance and the post-Lehman financial collapse. It was not an endorsement of European-style social democracy.

Over at The New Republic, Jonathan Chait condemns Krauthammer's piece for missing the effects of unemployment upon the president's unpopularity. The left may still be trying to reassure himself that any failure Obama suffers will not be due to the unpopularity of "progressive" policies but instead truly due to a poor economic situation.

However, those economic difficulties are in part policy/political failures. The Obama administration chose to push forward a hyper-partisan stimulus bill, one designed to delay distributing stimulus money. The Obama administration chose to announce a benchmark of success for its stimulus bill vis-a-vis unemployment, a benchmark it has fallen considerably short of. The Obama administration chose to focus its rhetorical energies on health-care reform and cap-and-trade instead of the economy. If the administration and the Democratic Congress had adopted a different approach to the current economic turmoil in early 2009, perhaps the economic picture might be different now. But it didn't, and now it's living with the consequences.

The administration is not a mere victim of the economic dynamic but has itself contributed to this dynamic. And the polled unpopularity of various concrete measures the administration supports on health-care and other issues is not solely (or even principally or significantly) due to the state of the economy.

Krauthammer ends on this note:
Hence the resistance. Hence the fall. The system may not always work, but it does take its revenge.
If the revenge of the political system continues and Obama's agenda continues to encounter turbulence, look for many "progressives" to attempt to deconstruct the system and its myriad checks and balances. Beyond a push to end the filibuster (which more and more "progressives" are mounting), "progressive" drums might be beginning to beat for ending the Senate itself.

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