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Could Obama have done more to change Washington?


Kevin Drum says President Obama couldn't have done more to push procedural reforms of the U.S. Senate (or, I guess, the other things I suggested) because "the subject is too arcane for most of the public to care about."

This is the conventional wisdom, but I think it's wrong. As far as I can tell, most everything is too arcane for the public to care about, which is why the public instead makes political judgments based on the economy. But Washington nevertheless does lots of stuff that the public doesn't much care about. And though the public may not take notice, slices of it do: Activists, news junkies, interest groups and partisans. Those folks have their own agendas, but they also care about what the leaders they trust tell them to care about.

And their leaders regularly get them to passionately care about all sorts of bizarre, esoteric things. The judicial filibuster, which Republicans developed extremely strong opinions on when Bill Frist decided to try and abolish it. The individual mandate, which Democrats developed extremely strong opinions on when Hillary Clinton and Obama began fighting over it. The New Black Panthers, who began terrifying conservatives after Fox News began hyping them. Even the public option, which no one had heard of in 2004. None of these were issues where everyday partisans had preexisting, strong opinions. All of them were issues where such opinions were developed in response to rhetorical leadership.

If Obama wanted to make the filibuster or campaign-finance reform an issue, he could make it an issue. That isn't to say he could win action on the issue. Presidents polarize, and there's plenty that's beyond their power when it comes to Congress. But they do have the power to put things on the agenda. As it is, there's no high-profile example of the White House either changing Washington or fighting a losing battle in service of changing Washington, and the latter, at least, is certainly something they could have done. The White House made a decision to focus on practical legislation that it could pass, and so campaigns that might have distracted from those efforts weren't attempted.

Photo credit: White House.

By Ezra Klein  | September 29, 2010; 9:05 AM ET
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The best and only way for Obama to change Washington would have been to find a way to please and energize his base in order to get progressives reelected in 2010. He seems to have completely neglected his base until now, just a few weeks before the election. He took us for granted.

Obama is a good man. But he is not a good leader and he is politically incompetent. Note that I disagree with much of the right-wing criticism of Obama; those people are way off base.

Posted by: lauren2010 | September 29, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

And America yawned and said "what have you done for me?"

If you don't change the question, that's what you get. Obama has flunked political leadership and left under-organized constituency groups to whine. Leaders lead -- even if off cliffs.

Posted by: janinsanfran | September 29, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Oh my God, Ezra appears to have abandoned his all-encompassing excuse of the Powerless, Bystander President and actually argues that Obama could have used the bully pulpit to make arguments for real change. More of this, please, and I mean it completely unironically, because it's refreshing that Ezra is starting to hold Obama accountable for choices he made. Thank you!

Posted by: redscott1904 | September 29, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

"The best and only way for Obama to change Washington would have been to find a way to please and energize his base"

obama has had many accomplishments already.
president obama did not have to "please" you. he had to pass the best legislation that he could, under very complicated circumstances. and he has done that.
one cant just throw their hands up in the air, because they are "not pleased" with the way the world is.
and one cannot just sit and one's hands, sulking, wishing that the world were different.

if the democratic base is not energized, it is its own fault.
president obama is doing his part, taking courageous stands and being a leader of true character.

bring positivity and support, instead of negativity and whining, and president obama will be able to accomplish more good things.
we are so fortunate to have his leadership.
this is an imperfect world. all human beings, including president obama, are human and divine.
look for the good, and help to do the work, with what you have, where you are.
president obama is doing his work, and walking his walk, courageously.
democrats need to do the work now.

be the change you wish to see, in the world.

Posted by: jkaren | September 29, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I think Democrats will regret that they did not focus on tax policy and extending Bush tax cuts for those making under $250k while letting the tax cuts for those making over $250K expire before they focused on health care reform.

Posted by: lancediverson | September 29, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I think you are missing the problem here which was that Obama's presidency was premised on the idea that his presidency would get all sides to collaborate and work together. Procedural reform was not even on the radar and perhaps considered counterproductive to Obama's goals, which were to hope that Congress would be able to work well and collaboratively within the structure of the existing rules.

Posted by: constans | September 29, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

It doesn't matter whether a subject is too arcane for the public to care about. Their job is to provide leadership. Medicine is too arcane for the public, so we pay doctors to take action. If politicians won't lead, who needs them at all?

Posted by: dlk117561 | September 29, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

"I think you are missing the problem here which was that Obama's presidency was premised on the idea that his presidency would get all sides to collaborate and work together."

and what a normal and noble thought.
it seemed that the heart of it, was a spiritual change, that the country might have been capable of making.
that by being attentive, mindful, measured, capable of making pragmatic compromises with good will and humility, with other people who were also elected to public office, who supposedly have the best interests of the people they represent, at heart, one hoped that could have happened.
for me, at least, that was the real hope.
that a leader who was open to engaging others, who brought decency and honor to the office, could have supported the kind of spiritual change that is at the heart of all things.
but he was hated and contemptuously stonewalled, from the very first day.
people wanted him to fail on every side, no matter what effect it would have on the american people.
hillary supporters never forgave him, islamophobes and racists were awakened like golems, people who are outraged and bewildered by a changing america, used him as an object of blame...and add all of this, to the berserk nature of politics today, and the relentless pounding of the media...and all the while, he has taken the high road, as a leader, and draws venomous disdain and ridicule for that, too.
i find it all very depressing.
the hope that i feel is from watching president obama endure, and carry on, in a measured, reflective and spiritual way.
people mistook his self-restraint and attempts to engage others into the process, as weakness, instead of strength.
that is always a sadness, when people interpret quiet strength of character, as weakness.
in this world, we often cast our pearls before swine.

Posted by: jkaren | September 29, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

I came here to say what constans said. Nobody (or very few) thought or argued that filibuster reform or campaign finance reform should be at the top of the President's to do list. In January of '09 McCain-Feingold was still in effect. It wasn't perfect by a long shot, but President Obama had just been elected with the most small donors ever. As for procedural reform, the Dems had 59 votes and Al Franken was going to be 60 as soon as Norm Coleman's challenges were done. Republicans were in disaray and openly talking about soul searching. After a campaign where people responded positiviely to Candidate Obama's pledge to work across the aisle, it was perfectly reasonable to think that there would be two or three Republican votes in play at any time.

Granted, there were plenty of people, including Ezra, who were pro-filibuster reform before the '08 election. Still, nobody thought it should be the first most important thing newly President Obama should do. He had to stop the economy from hemoraging and then he had to follow through on healthcare reform and financial reform, which were his two big legislative campaign promises.

By the time most Dems started caring about procedural reforms or campaign finance reforms, it was too late. Sure, President Obama could have made those his priorities, by why would he have done that in January '09?

Posted by: MosBen | September 29, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

You have to win filibuster reform on the very first day the Senate is in session in all likelyhood, so you'd have to fight this before the President was sworn in. That could not possibly have worked and if you lost, you'd be sworn in 0-1.

However, a new Senate is about to be sworn in, and assuming Democrats have control, there can be no excuse this time. If you care about your agenda or you care about obstruction in Washington, you must act.

Posted by: windshouter | September 29, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

You're exactly on point Ezra. The esoteric subject du jour is now how much control the Executive Branch should have exerted over the Legislative Branch in pushing it's agenda, and lets spend time a lot of time dwelling on it. After all, we're officially past that whole "Great Recession" thing, which is soooooo 2009. Then there's all that Health Care Reform, which didn't really 'reform' health care, or everything would be totally different now. Oh, oh, how could I forget those pesky war thingys taking place in, in... I forgot where those things are, but I'm sure I'll see more movies about them soon. I suppose the next lame excuse will be about something trivial like the next 'worst ever' disaster to hit the Gulf, like they ever have moderate or 'just another' disaster in the place where the shrimp come from.

You're right, Obama has completely failed in using his Bully Pulpit to force a separate branch of goverment to modify it's basic foundational rules. Now a real leader would have used his mind powers to abolish the Senate, forced his own legislative priorities on the country, and sided with the Trade Federation in imprisoning Princess Amidala for opposing higher banking and trade regulations. Granted, he would then have been revealed as a Kenyan Sith!

Posted by: Jaycal | September 29, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I think he tried to work collaboratively and I still appreciate that. He tried to deliver on his promise of a less partisan approach. It didn't work. It stinks but there you go.

The point that he could not have won filibuster reform is important. He played the campaign game very very smart(ly), and probably if he'd had a real opportunity to do filibuster reform he'd have taken it and no one would have noticed. It would have given him a very different hand to play through the last two years. But he didn't have the votes.

I don't think he's perfect, but he's been pretty good.

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | September 29, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I agree completely with laura2010. Obama is not the things the right says he is, but he still hasn't gotten me excited. I might vote Green/SPUSA next time.

Posted by: cja- | September 29, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

What surprised me was how thoroughly Obama permitted Democratic Congressional leaders to define the political agenda. Obama put no personal stamp on the stimulus at all, and no personal stamp on the healthcare legislation until really late in the process.

I think the administration was focusing on its reelection run in 2012 and so all it wanted from the healthcare debate was for a bill, any bill to pass so that it could claim that accomplishment. It avoided taking any positions on what should be in the bill out of a calculation that the voters would count it as a plus for the administration, whatever the bill looked like. It didn't count on the process becoming so drawn out and so ugly, and I think it was blindsided by the level of dissension within the Democratic side.

By playing this issue (and the stimulus) too passively and reactively, the administration made itself look ineffective and sent no principled message as to what it stood for, and it's stuck defending unpopular legislative hodgepodges.

Posted by: tomtildrum | September 29, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Please cite examples where a president or the executive branch successfully influenced changes to the internal rules which determine how Congress operates, especially something as significant as the filibuster. Anyone?

Posted by: tuber | September 29, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

OK. Woodrow Wilson and cloture, for one.

Posted by: stonedone | September 30, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

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