As I was saying yesterday I find the idea that Barack Obama’s political team has been making some kind of major errors a little hard to figure out. The Obama administration has made a number of decisions that I think were flat-out wrong on the merits. But Obama’s been extremely politically effective, especially considering how crappy the economy is, but poll after poll shows that Obama is besting his enemies in the political battle:
The people who are both the real political blunderers and the real substantive malefactors—and who continue to evade adequate scrutiny from the progressive community—are congressional Democrats, primarily Senate “centrists” but more recently with some assists from left-wing House members. Simply put, the congressional Democrats have a substantive agenda that’s broadly similar to Obama. But they’re much less popular than Obama. They were less popular in January 2009. They were less popular in February 2009. Less popular in March. Less popular in April. Less popular in May. Less popular in June. Less popular in July. Less popular in August. Less popular in September. Less popular in October. Less popular in November. And less popular in December. Turning the page to 2010, they were less popular than Obama in January 2010. And now in February 2010 they’re still less popular than Obama. What’s more, the policy staff working on the Hill simply lacks the technical competence to outdo the executive branch in terms of policy design.
The smart move, from Day 1 of the Obama administration to Day 380 of the Obama administration has been to just do what Obama wants unless you genuinely feel that Obama wants you to do something that outrages your conscience, in which case the smart thing to do is to say “no.” This business of getting into dickering and bargaining and screwing around has been both substantively and politically destructive. If congress had committed itself to expeditiously enacting administration proposals on stimulus, on health care, on climate, and on financial regulatory reform the economy would be in better shape, Obama would be more popular, and congressional Democrats would be more popular. Plus, substantive issues about health care, climate, and financial regulation would have been addressed.
I agree that the administration seems to have erred by relying too much on an “inside game” with congress. But members of congress need to be analyzed as free and equal autonomous moral agents in their own right—nobody made them act like whiny, self-important children rather than loyal partisan followers. They chose, collectively and as individuals, to slow everything down to nitpick everything to death to cry & moan every step of the way, and now they’re positioned to reap the whirlwind.