Can Democrats govern? After a full year of the Obama administration this is becoming the essential question. It is no longer a question of what health care reform will look like, whether the stimulus plan is working, whether adoption of the Bush war policy was the right decision, what a jobs bill should look like or any other specific policy question. Now, the central, crucial question is can the Democratic Party govern this nation?
For many, if not most citizens, regardless of how they feel about the issue, the answer will come in a few weeks. It will be determined by whether or not the Congress can pass something that remotely resembles health care reform. It doesn’t matter whether it is what the country needs in the way of health care reform. It matters now only that it appear to be health care reform.
I was not for President Obama during the primaries. However, like all Americans, save, maybe, the Limbaugh insaniacs, I was caught up in the wonder of his election and was certain he would be a good president, maybe even a great one. I now hope that he proves to be at least an adequately mediocre one.
He arrived in office with huge majorities in both houses of Congress. He was extraordinarily popular and enjoyed the good will of vast majorities of Republicans as well as Democrats and independents. His opposition, save a few crazies, were cowed into silence and/or ineffectual bitching. The path to a historic “one hundred days” was open. Had the President come to town having some idea of what he wanted to accomplish he could have achieved much of it in the first months of his administration. Had he chosen to do so, he could have accomplished a great deal before his political opposition could regroup and revive.
Unfortunately, accept for implementing the bidding of the Wall Street bankers, President Obama did nothing during this time. He refused to lead and allowed the nation to drift and the far right to become relevant again.
The far right did not become relevant because they proposed ideas that will work. Nor did they reassert their political potency with new ideas for dealing with the nation’s ills. They were able to reassert themselves because they took hard, rigid stands that, juxtaposed to the dithering of President Obama, made them appear to be leaders.
I hear there is a great deal of anger among Congressional Democrats, anger aimed at the President. That anger is fully justifiable. The President has led his party into a proverbial “box canyon.” The Party is faced now with the necessity of voting for a health care reform bill that may not be a reform bill. For many people, a new health care bill may make things much worse than they are now. At best, the universal benefits to be gained from whatever the Congress can pass and send to the President (There is no certainty the Congress can pass anything.) will not take effect for many years while the costs associated with provision of those benefits will begin almost immediately.
The President has sent the Congressional Democrats into this “box canyon” where they have a choice of passing nothing — this will result in the Party fighting the midterm election with a track record of incompetence — and passing a major reform that appears, at least, to do far more harm than good.
The Democratic Party has been brought to this place, this altar of non-partisanship, to be sacrificed, slaughtered like a fatted calf.
The single thing George Bush understood that absolutely eludes President Obama is the impossibility of being a non-partisan President. If you are a Senator or Congressman you can, occasionally, cast non-partisan votes on this or that issue. You can do this because you are only one of many who are your equal in constitutional authority. If you are the president, you are THE President. Unless a President is schizophrenic, being only one human, he or she is partisan in whatever decision is made, for that decision becomes the President’s policy. Further, Congress cannot lead the nation, only the President can do that. If a President refuses to lead, particularly if he refuses to do so on the primary issue, the defining issue of his administration, he is lost and the nation drifts.
It is perfectly OK for a president to lose. It is not OK for the President to abdicate leadership. President Obama, has repeatedly refused to lead this nation on the marquee issue of health care reform. This is all the more troubling as it was he who made health care the marquee issue. Having done so, President Obama had an obligation to the nation and to history to define what health care reform is and demand its adoption as law. He need not succeed. He could lose and not be lost. What he could not do, but has done anyway, is dither. He could not ask Congress to define the issue, allowing commercial interests and his opposition to define it, or in this case, bog it down in fuzzy definitions and irrelevancies. Yet, this is precisely what the president has done.
I do not know whether there is time for the President to grow into his job. Much the same sort of overawed dithering happened in the early days of President Carters and President Clinton’s administrations. In President Carter’s case, he was never able to recover. In President Clinton’s case, he was.
I am somewhat despondent. President Obama seems much more reflective and prone to over think things, like President Carter. He does not appear to possess that almost feral instinct that saved Clinton.
I hope this is wrong. I hope he will understand the lesson of Clinton’s ride to Israel on Air Force One. President Clinton imposed a strict policy of requiring Newt Gingrich to stay in his seat. On that trip, in the middle of the budget crisis that shut down large parts of the government, President Clinton behaved as the President and imposed his will on the Speaker. All Speaker Gingrich could do was whine to the public about the treatment making himself look silly and self important and Clinton look Presidential.
President Obama cannot afford any more embarrassing episodes like the “health care summit.” He succeeded only in elevating the Republicans in the eyes of the public and diminishing himself and the Presidency. Whatever the President chooses to do now, he needs to announce it and proceed. Whoever in his own Party or any other wants to come along may do so but President Obama must lead.
There is nothing to be gained by worrying about all the power President Obama has squandered. The world is a dangerous place. The United States needs a President.