Obama Still Popular, Legislating is Just Hard

There’s a popular, but wrong, theory out there that Barack Obama is having difficulty getting his legislative agenda enacted largely because of tactical errors made by Obama and his staff. This is wrong. But a lot of people seem absolutely wedded to the idea that it’s true; that just by definition it’s possible for a president to achieve whatever he wants so the fact that Obama hasn’t achieved certain things proves either that he secretly doesn’t want to achieve them or else that he’s blundering in his tactical approach. If that’s what you think, then I urge you to read John Heilemann’s article in New York since it’s by far the best contribution to this genre I’ve read yet.

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But now that Obama’s approval ratings are back over 50 percent, I’ll make one more pitch that people should consider the possibility that his political tactics have been pretty good, he’s been reasonably successful, and presidents just face considerable constraints in terms of what they can do domestically.

Here’s the big thesis graf:

As Galston points out, both Clinton and Ronald Reagan campaigned on and carried with them to Washington cohesive theories of the case: not simply proposals, but analyses and narratives about the transformation of the economy, America’s place in the world, and the role of government (or lack thereof) in adapting to and shaping the future. For Obama, the absence of a theory of case caused him no harm in 2008. But his failure in office to articulate one has been more damaging. In the debates that have dominated his maiden year, it has left his plans looking formless and untethered, and made it far more difficult to frame them in a fashion maximally compelling to the public or politically effective on Capitol Hill.

Here’s another theory. Somewhere between 90 and 100 members of the United States Senate seem committed to the current supermajority system for passing legislation. The supermajority system could be changed, but it can’t be changed by Obama. And thus to assemble 60 votes, Obama needs to rely on Democrats who represent such states as Arkansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Indiana, South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska. These states are all more conservative than the average American state. This makes it, objectively, very difficult to secure 60 votes for a progressive legislative agenda. In the House of Representatives, which is elected in a different way, Obama hasn’t had a major problem securing a majority for a progressive legislative agenda. And in the Senate, it’s not like Obama’s been an abject failure. Things like the stimulus bill and SCHIP expansion are significant, and he looks likely to get a health care bill and it’s not out of the question that he’ll get a clean energy bill too.

There are a lot of different attitudes one can take to the fact that the senate makes it (a) difficult to pass major legislation and (b) especially difficult to pass major progressive legislation. But the situation ought to be seen for what it is. If people want to see more progressive legislation pass in the future, they need to implement a strategy in which incumbent senators of either party are at serious risk of losing their seats on election day to challengers from the left. At the moment, very few senators fit that description. Obama deserves some of the blame for this situation but I think it’s a huge stretch to say it’s primarily his fault.