Mark Schmitt says the key thing about Barack Obama’s first hundred days is the success he’s had in framing the terms of debate:
How successfully has Obama set the terms of debate so far? The first thing to notice is that he has completely marginalized the Republican right, and his bipartisan outreach has a lot to do with it. Those of us who welcomed Obama’s bipartisan and consensus-building tone were often criticized on the grounds that Republicans would unite in lockstep opposition to any Democratic president, and so, we were lectured, one had to fight them with equal force. Having witnessed the lockstep opposition to President Bill Clinton at close hand in 1993, I was hardly naive about the Republican strategy of massive resistance. The question was whether it would work. In 1993, Republicans got continuous positive feedback for their opposition — gaining in the polls, bringing Clinton’s popularity down, and effectively blocking, not just modifying, most of Clinton’s initiatives except for those in the giant budget-reconciliation bill. They could see the potential Republican majority right around the corner.
This time, though, the Republicans have little to show for their opposition and with nowhere else to turn, seem to be aligning themselves not only with the crazier elements of their own coalition but with a desperate last-gasp defense of the most unpopular — not to mention illegal and immoral — aspects of the previous administration. Such a result is extraordinarily helpful to the magnanimous president — it removes any ambiguity, tells him exactly where he stands, and gives him the moral high ground in moving forward with a mainly Democratic coalition. And the few Republicans who for personal reasons or for reasons of constituency do want to cooperate with the president will find themselves cut off from their party, and as they find it harder to keep a foot in each camp, they will have to move more completely and decisively, just as Sen. Arlen Specter did by switching parties.
I largely agree with this, but in many ways it still strikes me as far too optimistic. To take just one example, climate change. The administration and the congressional leadership have ruled out the use of the reconciliation process to pass their energy/climate agenda. Since it’s completely inconceivable that you could get 60 votes in the Senate for the sort of cap-and-trade proposal that Barack Obama outlined during the campaign, this means they’ve preemptively surrendered on an agenda that they ran and won on during the course of a two-year presidential campaign. And that campaign-season plan, though excellent, fell somewhat short of what scientists say is necessary to prevent a potentially irreversible catastrophe. As I wrote in my hundred days roundup that’s a very significant failure.
On health reform, it seems certain that a bill will pass and be signed into law that’s called “Obama’s health care bill.” But it remains very unclear to me and to everyone how much the bill will actually do to tackle either the social injustice or the fiscal instability of our current health care system. Meanwhile, on the banking sector the debate about the administration’s policies is essentially between people who think they’re screwing up because they’re corrupt (Simon Johnson, Joe Stiglitz, Paul Krugman) and those who think they’re doing close to their best when faced with objective political constraints (Felix Salmon, Brad DeLong).
But those political constraints don’t just appear magically out of the sky. They have something to do with the continuing atmosphere of partisan gridlock on the Hill. So you can say that congressional obstruction has succeeded in derailing Obama’s efforts on the most important short-term issue that congress has jurisdiction over, and also derailing his efforts on the most important long-term issue that he’s facing. That’s pretty impressive for a small and unpopular minority!
The hard right’s political strategy, in other words, may be pretty unsuited for short-term electoral victory—I think they’re in very bad shape for 2010 and 2012—but it’s surprisingly effective on policy terms.