Some Thoughts on the Stimulus Bill

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. .


  1. Matt, didnt you warn us that the first 100 days were not that important? And doesnt the content of the bill matter too? Pelosi butchered the first draft, the Republicans larded the second draft with tax cuts which probably wont work, and the bill turned out to be a mishmash.

    Obama’s real sin is that he failed to lead…either left, right or down the middle.

    The Republicans are awfully good as a minority party. You won’t get any meaningful bipartisanship until the Democrats replace Pelosi and Reid.


  2. The good news for Obama is that despite the media circus over the lack of bipartisanship and the hype about Gregg’s decision to withdraw from consideration for Secretary of Commerce, his poll numbers are still relatively high. The perception remains that he acted in a good faith effort to set a bipartisan tone, even if it didn’t work out as he planned. While Obama did manage to follow through on a number of campaign promises in this bill, it is also worth noting that there were serious concessions to Republicans along the way. Many programs were (deservedly) cut either in the Senate or in conference. Tax cuts also made up a significant portion of the stimulus, and tax cuts tend to be favored by Republicans more than Democrats. Senators Spector, Snowe, and Collins also extracted some concessions, particularly in regards to spending on education, which was revised to prevent too much federal influence on schools, which have traditionally been run at the local level. For these reasons, I think the bill that passed was a lot more centrist than the roll call suggests.

    I also think that it is a little early to declare that the stimulus marks the end of bipartisanship until the 2010 elections. Congress was heavily divided because the stimulus bill raised the same question that political parties in the U.S. have been warring over since Hamilton and Jefferson – namely, how large a role should the federal government play in running and regulating the nation’s economy and in providing for the social welfare of citizens. The upcoming battle over Obama’s yet-to-be-announced 2010 budget will likely raise similar questions, but I’m optimistic that there will be opportunities for more consensus on key issues.

    Repairing the country’s health care system is one of them. Needless to say, there are areas of principled disagreement between the two parties on this issue as well, but creating an effective health care system will require ideas from both sides of the isle. I also think there remains significant opportunity for bipartisan efforts concerning the environment, particularly because McCain ran on a relatively progressive environmental platform during the election.

    Finally, the one other thing that deserves mention is the fact that there are fewer moderate republicans than there used to be. For obvious reasons, this makes bipartisanship significantly harder. Nevertheless, I’m very surprised with the Republicans’ decision to oppose the stimulus unanimously. I don’t think it puts them in a very good position for 2010, partially because they are banking on the stimulus package failing. As much as Obama’s missteps may have led to the unsatisfying result of the House and Senate votes, so too did the Republican leadership blunder. They had the most to gain from working with the Congressional Democrats and Obama on this issue. Instead, they may find themselves with very little to talk about on the campaign trail in a couple of years (which, in itself, is another story – it is too early too make any good predictions, but as of now, things look far worse for Congressional Republicans than for Congressional Democrats). Much like the economy, I don’t think the Republican party’s electoral fortunes have hit rock bottom yet. Just take a look at the number of Republican seats that will be open. If Republicans dislike how the Senate is operating now, they may be in for a shock in 2010.

    It remains to be seen what tactics Obama and Congressional Republicans will employ in round two, but I think both will be eager to find some areas of consensus. I don’t think Obama has given up yet on his desire to bring “Change” to Washington; I also don’t think Republicans can afford to sit on the sidelines and vote “No” until the next election cycle. When both sides have something to gain, there is always opportunity for compromise. Of course, the cynic in me says that both sides have to realize that they have something to lose before compromises occur. Maybe Obama’s numbers need to slip a little before we see some real “bipartisanship.”

  3. Connor, Frank Rich makes some of your same points in today’s Times.The Republicans are the big loosers; they played right into the pundit’s sound bites and came away with a big goose egg. How will that play in Peoria in 2010?

    Here is the Rich quote.

    “This G.O.P., a largely white Southern male party with talking points instead of ideas and talking heads instead of leaders, is not unlike those “zombie banks” that we’re being asked to bail out. It is in too much denial to acknowledge its own insolvency and toxic assets. Given the mess the country is in, it would be helpful to have an adult opposition that could pull its weight, but that’s not the hand America has been dealt.

    “As Judd Gregg flakes out and Lindsey Graham throws made-for-YouTube hissy fits on the Senate floor, Obama should stay focused on the big picture in governing as he did in campaigning. That’s the steady course he upheld when much of the political establishment was either second-guessing or ridiculing it, and there’s no reason to change it now. The stimulus victory showed that even as president Obama can ambush Washington’s conventional wisdom as if he were still an insurgent.”

  4. Now that we have Prof. Dickinson to guide us through Obamania, who needs the New York Times, et al?

    Great blog!

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