Make no mistake: the $787 billion economic stimulus measure that Obama will sign into law on Monday is an historic piece of legislation. Whether it is a good piece of legislation, economically speaking, is another matter – only time will tell. I don’t pretend to know the answer, and I doubt anyone else knows either. Politically, however, one cannot help but feel that with the bill’s passage, Obama lost his first and best opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise to change the tone of Washington politics. Because for all the media fawning, fueled by the understandable crowing by Obama’s aides about how quickly this bill passed, (see “analysis” here) the simple fact is some type of stimulus legislation was going to go through Congress in this period. The real question is whose bill would it be? In the end, the stimulus package didn’t attract a single Republican vote in the House, and only three in the Senate. In his first major legislative test, then, Obama was unable to bring change, in the form of bipartisanship, to Washington. The simple fact is his legislative strategy in Congress proved every bit as polarizing as Bush’s and Clinton’s before him – more so, if you compare their early legislative efforts.
As a political scientist, of course, the fact that the legislative process played out in predictable fashion, with Obama relying on the Democratic majority in the House to fashion the initial stimulus bill, and then moving toward the center by making only enough concessions as needed to attract the necessary votes in the Senate, is reassuring to me. It shows that we understand legislative politics. Given the electoral and institutional forces influencing congressional behavior, there’s no reason to believe Democrats and Republican legislators would act any differently in 2009 than they have for the previous eight years – unless someone made them change. No one did. The result was polarized party politics redux. .
As a partisan of the presidency, however – as someone who believes that strong presidential leadership is crucial to the American political system – the results can’t help but be disappointing. Remember, Obama’s electoral “mandate” – if it is to be said that he has any mandate at all – was to change the tone of Washington politics by ending partisan polarization. It was a mandate Obama readily embraced. And yet, when given the opportunity to bring that change to fruition – he wouldn’t, or couldn’t do it.
Why not? The easy response is to say that Obama couldn’t possibly have crafted a bill that attracted broad Republican support without repudiating the Pelosi wing of his own Democratic party. But how else was he to achieve bipartisanship? Rhetoric alone isn’t going to magically produce a kinder, gentler Washington, unless all Obama really meant by bipartisanship was making disagreement more civil. Leadership is about making hard choices, and having the political will to enforce those choices. If Obama truly believed he won election because voters wanted the type of change he preached, it would have meant using a combination of carrots and sticks, particularly his veto threat, to craft a more bipartisan stimulus bill. I’m not saying this would have been easy. Democrats in the House would have howled, raged and threatened to pass a bill much like the one that eventually did pass. But Obama held some trump cards. It is not beyond reason to suggest that by holding firm in support of a bill that attracted a few more Republicans, and making the House understand that any Obama veto would have easily been sustained in the Senate, Obama might have forced Democrats’ hand in the House. In this way he might have crafted a bill that attracted greater Republican support. There’s no reason for Congress to change its way unless Obama makes them change.
The issue here is not whether he could, or should, have crafted a more bipartisan bill – it’s that there is there no evidence that he understood what it took to do so. Early in the process, when Republicans laid out the changes they wanted, Obama rebuffed them, saying “I won.” Well, yes he did – but he has been arguing that his win signifies a desire by voters for a less polarized politics. So what will it be – polarization as usual or change?
The president’s job in the American political system is to provide leadership that addresses the national interest. That’s not leadership that Congress, with its geographically local representation and distributive tendencies, can provide. When presidents don’t exercise that leadership, legislation becomes defined by the interests of legislators – which is precisely what happened with the stimulus bill. Rather than provide legislative direction, the evidence (see here and here) suggests that, in his rush to get a stimulus bill passed, Obama was willing to acquiesce to the interests of legislators, even if it meant occasionally getting whipsawed by members of both parties.
Now, if Obama has decided to govern in a parliamentary style by relying solely on his own party – in effect repudiating bipartisanship – his decision to acquiesce to Pelosi’s wishes in putting together the stimulus package is an understandable strategy. However, it goes against everything I know about Obama’s past commitment to pragmatism dating back to his days in law school, and it directly repudiates his own promise to change the tone of Washington politics. And history suggests – see the Democrats in 1993-94, or the congressional Republicans under Newt Gingrich in 1994-95 – that governing through a single-party coalition rarely lasts because it runs against the more centrist tendencies of the public, and it is difficult to sustain in a governing system of shared powers..
I think Obama sincerely desires to change the nature of Washington politics. I don’t believe he wanted to start his presidency off in such a partisan manner. Of course, it will be easy to blame the Republicans, or House Democrats under Nancy Pelosi, for the partisan manner in which this bill was passed. But I see no evidence in news account so far that Obama understood the price necessary to pay, or the leadership required, to achieve bipartisanship. His actions belied his rhetoric. It is still early in his presidency, of course. And, in his defense, he felt tremendous pressure to get a stimulus bill through Congress as quickly as possible. But to date he has proved every bit as incapable or unwilling to end polarization as his predecessor.
A final thought: the last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter in 1977 and Bill Clinton in 1993, both took office promising an end to the failed ideologies of the past. Competence, not partisanship, was their watchword – they, too, promised a government not of the left or the right, but one that works. The great risk in pursuing the “politics of competence”, however, is that without a fixed governing philosophy to guide decisions, you leave yourself open to being defined by others. Carter’s “passionless” presidency was rejected by voters after one term. Clinton won reelection, but only after learning to define himself in terms of his opposition to the Republican “Contract with America.” If the stimulus bill is any evidence, Obama risks reprising these earlier Democratic mistakes. One searches the bill in vain for any clue regarding what he believes in as a matter of public policy. Rather than establish principles by which to guide debate, as Reagan did in 1981 with his package of tax and spending cuts, Obama seemed willing to accept a stimulus bill crafted in a way designed to insure the quickest possible passage through Congress. “Whatever it takes” is not a governing philosophy.
It is still very early in Obama’s presidency. But if change no longer means “bipartisanship” and the end to the Clinton-Bush politics of polarization, what does it mean? Obama won election by telling voters who he wasn’t. Now he needs to say who he is. .