Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Despite Obama’s stirring vow in his inaugural address to change the culture of politics in Washington (“On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”), the early evidence is that Congress is operating under a political dynamic remarkably similar to what occurred during the eight years of the Bush presidency. As most of you know by now, Obama failed to attract a single Republican vote – not one! – on the most important piece of legislation of his young presidency to date (see the nytimes article).  On Wednesday, the House passed an $819 billion economic recovery package by an almost straight party vote 244-188. No Republican voted in favor of the legislation, while all but 11 Democrats did.  The Senate begins debate on its own version of the stimulus package on Monday.

The lack of Republican support in the House is a stark reminder that despite Obama’s lofty rhetoric promising an end to partisan politics, the House remains a highly polarized body. As a result, on most issues involving economic policy, Obama is likely to follow a legislative “strategery” remarkably similar to what George Bush utilized to push his tax cuts through Congress: stake out an initial policy position close to your own party mean in the House, and then moderate that stance as necessary to win opposition party votes in the Senate.  I expect a stimulus bill to eventually pass Congress, but only after significant concessions are made to Republicans in the Senate.  That will set up a showdown with the much more polarized House as the two chambers seek to resolve their differences in legislative conference.

Why haven’t we seen the much-ballyhooed movement away from partisan politics promised by Obama?  Because the fundamentals that dictate how politics is played in Washington have not changed.  As I noted in an earlier post, Obama’s electoral victory – while decisive – fell far short of a mandate for change.  Consider the following polling data (source here) – it indicates a significant split among partisans in the public regarding the stimulus bill:

Dem  Rep  Ind D-R  Diff

Obama: Good start on economy       82%  42   60   40 pts

Support $800b stimulus                  84   52   69   32
Support it “strongly”                        58   22   44   36

More important:
Stimulus spending                           62   38   50   24
Controlling deficit                            34   58   46  -24

In Obama’s economic program        92   43   74   49
That it’ll have adequate controls      66   27   39   39

Larger govt, more services             62   21   41   41
Smaller govt, fewer services           33   77   55  -44

Given these numbers, it makes little political sense for Republicans to support the stimulus legislation as it is currently constructed.  If Obama wishes to truly pass a bipartisan stimulus bill, he will need to make significant concessions to Republicans in the form of broader and deeper tax cuts. To do so, however risks losing support of his own party’s left wing. Much of the media coverage of the House debate describes the stimulus package as Obama’s bill.  But in fact it is as much Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s bill as it is Obama’s.  The House is designed to empower the majority party. Given this institutional constraint, there was little Obama could do to bring Republicans on board.  Like most presidents, he simply is not that powerful.

My broader point is that the polarization critics often associate with the 8 years of the Bush administration had less to do with Bush’s governing strategy and more with the composition of Congress. By virtue of the constitutional-derived incentives, members of Congress react to different electoral influences than does the President. Obama may have “won” the general election, but he received fewer popular votes than most Republicans and many Democratic legislators (I’ll present more data on this in a later post).  Consequently, in the absence of significant legislative concessions by Obama, Republicans and many Democrats feel little obligation to follow his legislative lead.

Because that deep-seated polarization in Congress did not go away with Obama’s election, I don’t expect much change in the nature of legislative politics, Obama’s stirring words in his inaugural address notwithstanding: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them; that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” Call me acynic, but the evidence indicates the ground hasn’t shifted much at all. As my students know, I’m not much for rhetoric – show me the numbers.  In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at those numbers to document the rise and sources of party polarization in Congress.

For now, however, we simply must lower our expectations regarding Obama’s ability to bring change to Washington. Campaigning is not governing. Except in very rare historical instances, presidents cannot remake politics – it is the politics that make the president. On economic issues centered on taxes and government spending, Obama will appear every bit as divisive as Bush.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

One comment

  1. I agree with you. It takes Pelosi to want to reach across the aisle- and she clearly does not. Acoording the the Republicans in the House, they were cut off completely from input in the bill drafting.

    This may be a good thing for Pelosi, if the bill passes in something close to her form – and if it works.

    If on the other hand, the bill fails to produce results then it will be her fault and those of the Dems in the House.

    In the meantime, the public is learning of what is is the bill- much of it perhaps worthy, but certainly not stimulative, at least in the short run.

    People want effective, non doctrinaire, government. Politicians want policy.

    There is real and palpable fear out here about this economy- unlike anything I have ever felt, but very much like what my parents described of the Great Depression. The numbers don’t support that fear really, but it is here nevertheless. The people are rapidly losing the belief that the govt can figure this out- and have already lost whatever shred of faith they may have had in business.

    Where do we go from here? It is not politics as usual.

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