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The Wall


Late last week, I was summoned to a windowed meeting room overlooking the White House to sit with members of one of Washington's nimbler, smarter think tanks. The assembled thinkers tried to convince me that Barack Obama was missing a historic opportunity: The legislation that was traveling under his name was increasingly unlikely to bind the middle class to his presidency or party. Cap-and-trade was a mess. Health reform was going to fail on cost control. And what of jobs? Obama, they said, had to take a firmer hand with the Congress. His hands-off approach was a fiasco. Leadership matters. It's important. It's needed.

Of course, as David Brooks points out, a firm hand with Congress is remembered as the defining mistake of the Bill Clinton's first-term. As you can read in detail here, there was no mistake more consequential than the president's decision to dictate every jot and tittle of his health reform plan to the legislature. Obama's congressionalist approach is an effort to avoid the mistakes of the Clinton years. Predictably enough, that's led to a growing chorus flaying him for making the opposite mistakes.

And maybe that chorus is right. But the implicit assumption of these arguments about strategy is that there is, somewhere out there, a workable strategy. That there is some way to navigate our political system such that you enact wise legislation solving pressing problems. But that's an increasingly uncertain assumption, I think.

Imagine a group of men sitting in a dim prison cell. One of the walls has a window. Beyond that wall, they know they'll find freedom. One of the men spends years picking away at it with a small knife. The others eventually tire of him. That's an idiotic approach, they say. You need more force. So one of the other men spends his days ramming the bed frame into the wall. Eventually, he exhausts himself. The others mock his hubris. Another tries to light the wall of fire. That fails as well. The assembled prisoners laugh at the attempt. And so it goes. But the problem is that there is no answer to their dilemma. The problem is not their strategy. It's the wall.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.

UPDATED, 2:33 PM: This entry has been corrected to turn the phrase "jit and tot" into "tot and jittle."

By Ezra Klein  |  June 30, 2009; 11:04 AM ET
Categories:  Government  
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So in this case, the problem is not the strategy for dealing with the Congress, its the corporatist majority in the Congress, and the thoroughly corrupted political process that keeps its safely ensconced.

Posted by: BruceMcF | June 30, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Or the problem is Congress? I do not want to deny many sterling achievements of Congress in spite of White House. Nor do I want to ignore the saying that - 'do not bother to know how the sausage is done and law making is done'. But really the question is why Congress time after time, occasion after occasion fails to show leadership and come up with clean legislation and effective policies / laws? Why do they fail so often?

It is not that Congress does not have leadership. Nancy is there and she does get her Cap-and-trade bill passed. Overall, it is unmistakable to note that House is delivering on many things (though Rep. Obey destroyed the stimulus package by adding extreme, ideologically driven measures to start with). So obviously the problem is with Senate. Those Cardinals may pride themselves as the ones who are keeping America's political hot debates cooler; but in reality with their penchant for showmanship and tendency to extract the political pound of flesh essentially renders America's policy effectiveness diminished.

What is astonishing is the shallowness of Senator's knowledge. They are really bunch of incompetent folks and with phenomenal lack of core knowledge and information about policy. Add to that their ideological poison and no wonder 'The Wall' remains.

It is unmistakable that it is the Senate which is taking America down the drain.

Posted by: umesh409 | June 30, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Actually the wall is us. Congress consists only of those who we put there. We need to get on the stick, and stay in touch with the ones that are there now, and work to send better representatives in the future.

Posted by: cjo30080 | June 30, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, when you write "jit and tot" I think you are not writing what you intend. Did you mean "jot and tittle"? If so, I suggest you change it, which is okay in Wapo blog practice.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | June 30, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Your prison cell analogy, itself an allusion to Plato's cave, might also be a good summary of Philosophy since Plato.

Posted by: Castorp1 | June 30, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

What this metaphor makes me think of is that Obama has said this is the Joshua generation. He usually means it in the civil rights context, where Martin Luther King is sometimes called the Moses of the movement, particularly due to his mountaintop speech the night before he was killed. (King said he had been to the top of the mountain, like Moses, and saw the promised land, "but I may not get there with you." So those who moved the movement forward to complete the journey were commonly said to be like Joshua, Moses's successor.)

But you know, the Joshua generation is famous for something other than reaching the promised land. During the battle of Jericho, Joshua blew a trumpet, and the walls came tumbling down.

Maybe the grassroots movement we built in the 2008 campaign for Obama, enhanced and strengthened by social networking to organize events, fundraising, and communication, can be our trumpet. Let's stay involved and see what happens.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | June 30, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

I agree with previous comments that the wall is really us, not the political system. No matter how much people may say they care about something like health care reform, very few are going to actually pressure their congressman to do anything about it. People don't take the time our of their lives to do something until it really affects them personally. For health care, this may mean the day when a person is bleeding to death from a car accident, and there are no ambulances to pick them up because we can't afford them (I'm cribbing this example from somewhere). Whatever happens, people will live with the consequences. As much as I love politics and get passionate about these issues, I haven't done anything about health care reform or anything else. How many of those reading this blog actually have? Maybe I'm wrong, but that's my take.

Posted by: JohnN79 | June 30, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Well, that's a depressing take.

Posted by: nwgates | June 30, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Here's a different take, and one I think is at least more optimistic, if not exactly right.

Obama is taking the long view, and rather than exhaust his capital, letting Congress do the heavy lifting.

It's very reasonable for a country still far to the right.

Posted by: PoliticalPragmatist | June 30, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

I vote against the continued use of such absurd and trite expressions such as "taking America down the drain". Avoiding gross generalities and catastrophic thinking is a first step towards reasoned discourse and away from Limbaugh flim flam. And if you disagree you are most certainly moving this country to the edge of a disaster of cataclysmic proportions.

Posted by: mickster1 | June 30, 2009 7:15 PM | Report abuse

I am really tired of people facilely talking about "pressuring [our] congressmen".

What, exactly, would "pressure" Dianne Feinstein, that you or I or any of us can do? Those of us who are not very wealthy people, that is.

Nothing. She has said so herself - she isn't moved by criticism from the left. We could surround her offices with hundreds of thousands of people every day and all that would result would be mass arrests and a lot of overtime that the cities can't really afford right now.

The US Senate is leading the USA to social failure. Close your eyes and wish it away if you like, it won't change anything. As Jared Diamond has described it, when a society's elites can isolate themselves from the consequences of their actions, it is a blueprint for collapse.

Posted by: LittleGreenArmyMan | July 1, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

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