The Unbearable Heaviness of Governing

Friday, May 13, 2011
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Barbara Kelley

During his Harvard student days humorist Robert Benchley, in a hung-over state, confronted a diplomatic history exam. It asked him to discuss the Newfoundland fisheries dispute. "This topic has been exhaustively examined from the viewpoint of the United States, Great Britain, and Canada," he began. "I shall discuss it from the viewpoint of the fish."

Now that we are well and truly into the Obama years, it is time for a progress report that rests less on the day-to-day perspective of most pundits and politicians and more on the longer (if often tunnel-visioned) perspective of history: that sea of time and change in which we citizen-fish swim.

The Unbearable Heaviness of Governing
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

In the course of writing this essay, I came to realize that I was confronted by a dilemma, encountered by every president, that is the precise antithesis of the one explored by Milan Kundera in his great novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera’s protagonists struggle with the inescapable reality that their lives—their being—are self-contained, brief, isolated, purposeless: in short, "light." (Kundera: "I have no mission. No one has.")

But as president, Barack Obama carries a heavy weight indeed. It might be called an "unbearable heaviness" in the sense that whatever his talents or aspirations—and surely a sense of mission is the essence of his presidency—Obama is constrained by the past, by his institutional surroundings, and by the course of events. Hence The Unbearable Heaviness of Governing: Obama’s burden, but hardly his alone.

Comparing our presidents with their predecessors is one way to grasp more fully the character and quality of their performances. This has been notably so in the case of Barack Obama, because of the special aura of his persona, his talents, and his ambition.

In his meteoric career, Obama has been linked to a number of history’s great men. References to Jesus Christ, God, and Abraham Lincoln flowed from the pens of irrationally exuberant disciples and journalists. National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman thought that as a memoirist Obama was "the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar."

Now that we are well into the Obama years, it is time for a progress report.

A premature Nobel Peace Prize—and journalist Jacob Weisberg’s prediction that if the president secured Obamacare by the time of his first State of the Union address he will have "accomplished more in his first year than any other postwar American president"—were other triumphs of illusion over reality. The two most conspicuous books on Obama so far, David Remnick’s The Bridge and Jonathan Alter’s The Promise, bear titles with a messianic resonance.

But this report does not confine itself to the parlor game of presidential analogy. It examines as well the larger realities that are shaping Obama’s presidency: the facts of contemporary political life; the nature of key institutions such as Congress and the bureaucracy; and that all-too-frequent determiner of a president’s destiny, the course of events.

The focus here is more on this larger context in which Obama is making his way, than on his talents and intentions. The latter are what he brought to the great game of government; the former determines the rules of the game.

The President and Congress

An early analysis by political scientists Sidney Milkis and Jesse Rhodes of Obama’s prospects warned: ‘‘[he] must avoid forms of administrative aggrandizement that alienate citizens from government, and . . . must forego leadership strategies that threaten the independence and integrity of the party apparatus.’’ On the first count, his record so far has been decidedly mixed. On the second, it has been decidedly successful.

The most conspicuous measure for evaluating Obama’s leadership is his success in getting Congress to enact his legislative program. Even when one party controls both branches, this is by no means inevitable.

The message taught by history is clear. While the Democrats had substantial majorities of about eighty in the House and up to twenty in the Senate, the record of the past suggests that party predominance is a thin reed on which to rest the success of his program. True, the threat of a presidential veto is not in play. But the constraint of a Senate filibuster, a device increasingly resorted to by both parties in recent years, made the sixty-vote requirement to invoke cloture an equally important check on simple majority rule. And it is a self-evident fact that the larger the Democratic majority, the more it includes members from often Republican-leaning states and districts, and hence the larger the number needed to avoid gridlock on a given piece of legislation.

So far there has been little evidence of the strains between the president and his Congressional party colleagues that so quickly characterized, and for so long plagued, the Carter administration. The members of the leadership could not but be pleased by Obama’s readiness to let them take the legislative reins. Given the forces that feed the autonomy of members of Congress, Obama’s doing so may have been as necessary for him as it was satisfying to them.

But necessity did not foreclose difficulty. The left wing of the Democratic Party has as outsized a voice in Congress as Southern Democrats did in the pre-civil rights years. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Energy and Commerce chair Henry Waxman, Ways and Means chair Charles Rangel, and Financial Services chair Barney Frank represent constituencies as solidly Democratic, and as strongly Left-leaning (San Francisco affluent, black, Jewish), as the districts of the old Southern barons that were bastions of white supremacist-Democratic sentiment.

Of the twenty-one most influential House Democratic leaders, sixteen came from districts that went for Obama by an average of over 70 percent. Heavily blue-state California assumed the same dominance in the leadership that Texas had in the Rayburn-Johnson era, or the South at large before the 1960s.

Obama’s is "the most Congress-centric administration in modern history."

Pelosi symbolically defeated Texas Congressman Martin Frost to become Speaker. She saw to it that her fellow-liberal Californian Henry Waxman replaced the more accommodating John Dingell of Michigan as Energy and Commerce chair. Other Californians in places of power were George Miller in Education and Labor, Jane Harman in Intelligence, and Senators Barbara Boxer in Environment and Public Works and Dianne Feinstein in Intelligence.

When ethics problems forced Rangel to leave the chairmanship of Ways and Means, Pelosi initially sought to replace him with Pete Stark, yet another Californian, noted even in that free-wheeling political world for his off-the-charts remarks and behavior. This was a bit too provocative; he was quickly replaced by Sander Levin, a Michigan representative more closely attuned to mainstream America.

On the eve of Obama’s inauguration in December 2008, The Economist took note of the filibuster danger in the Senate, where the Democrats at the time were one shy of the sixty seats needed to invoke cloture. The magazine thought that this would induce Obama to refrain from narrowly partisan lawmaking and restore the tradition of bipartisan votes on major legislation. It estimated that there were about twenty three centrist Republican and Democratic senators; it was to them that Obama should turn.

Why did Obama instead give over his legislative agenda to the highly polarized leadership of Congress? Just as Democratic presidents from FDR to LBJ had to deal with the at-times politically dysfunctional consequences of the Southern leaders, so it might have seemed prudent to rein in the Californians. It would be difficult to argue that Pelosi, Waxman, and Company embodied mainstream American political attitudes.

How much experience did Obama have before he became president? "Approximately none."

There has not been much evidence (or at least reportage) of tension, ideological or procedural, between Obama and the then-congressional leadership. Journalist Matt Bai observed that Obama’s is "the most Congress-centric administration in modern history." Presumably not unrelated is the fact that Obama has issued fewer executive orders than his immediate predecessors: less than fifty by the end of March 2010. FDR produced 674 in his first fifteen months, LBJ 130 in 1964 and 1965.

Explanations for this deference abound. Surely one has to do with Obama’s clear preference for the art of public persuasion over the craft of bill-making. He seems most at ease facing a supportive audience, a photogenic human backdrop behind him, teleprompters purring. Only when health care entered into its climactic gridlock phase did he throw himself into the legislative mosh pit.

The disparity between the promise of a Hundred Days or a Great Society, and the reality of an increasingly frustrating year-plus culminating in the drawn-out health care imbroglio, cast a shadow over Obama’s dealings with Congress and his legislative agenda. There are structural (or, in the jargon of our time, systemic) reasons for the character of that relationship. The increased autonomy of senators and representatives, with their own funding, single-minded constituencies, and decreasing reliance on their party or their leadership, is a prime fact of modern American political life.

For all that, Obama’s initial record of accomplishment was by no means picayune. The stimulus package, a $3.6 trillion budget, the energy and health care bills passed by the House, expanded health care for children and an increase in the minimum wage, a broad reform of the financial system: these were respectable accomplishments. And in March 2010 the administration staggered, shakily but triumphantly, over the finish line in the race to enact Obamacare.

Running the Presidency

The ability to govern depends on the lessons of the past as well as the dictates of the present. How much experience in governing did Obama have before he became president? In the words of the senior civil servant in BBC’s Yes Minister, when he was asked how many women were in senior posts in his ministry: "Approximately none." His lack of exposure to either running an organization or (save for a stint in the Illinois state senate and a truncated U.S. Senate term) holding public office sets him apart from almost all his modern predecessors, Democratic or Republican.

FDR, Reagan, Clinton, Carter, and Bush II governed states: all but Clinton, major ones. Truman, LBJ, and Ford were consequential senators or Congressmen; JFK bolstered an extended, if lackluster, congressional record with his war hero status. Eisenhower led and won the war against Hitler; Bush I held a rich variety of high government posts.

Obama’s lean political background was matched only by Carter’s and Woodrow Wilson’s two-year/one-term governorships. Like Carter and Wilson, Obama capitalized on his above-everyday-politics persona and scant political record to win election to the presidency. As Carter painfully discovered, the qualities that made him so effective a candidate did not readily transfer to the nuts and bolts of governance. Election is an event, specific and time-confined. Governing is a condition, amorphous and indeterminate.

How has Obama gone about running his slice of the modern American presidency?

During the campaign there was a tension between his emphasis on a post-partisan, ameliorating politics and his previous political persona. That included a dab of Chicago Saul Alinsky-style community organizing, close links to a radical black pastor and ties with onetime terrorist William Ayers, and by one measure the Senate’s most liberal voting record. Yet while Obama was harsh on his predecessor in his Inaugural Address and subsequent comments, his dominant campaign tone was outreach and reconciliation.

How has Obama gone about running his slice of the modern American presidency?

Obama’s initial actions generally reflected that more moderate mode. The appointments of Timothy Geithner as secretary of the treasury and Lawrence Summers as his chief economic adviser were hardly sops to the Left. Nicolas Sarkozy-like, he looted the opposition by keeping Bush’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke. He offered the job of secretary of commerce to Republican New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg (who accepted and then changed his mind); he made GOP Congressmen John McHugh secretary of the army, Ray LaHood secretary of transportation, and ex-Congressman Jim Leach head of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Glitches common to new administrations did appear: enough of them for The Economist to observe that the big surprise in his first two months was "a certain lack of competence." His attempt to make former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle his health care czar ran aground on ethics issues; Treasury Secretary Geithner had to overcome a bad patch over tax problems.

Obama’s Chicago "Politburo," like Carter’s Georgia or Clinton’s Arkansas (or Nixon’s California) group of intimates, has had to surmount the stigmas of parochialism and inexperience, and so far has done at least as well as their predecessors.

One difference: Carter’s closest aides Jody Powell, Hamilton Jordan, and Bert Lance, and indeed Carter himself, were less committed to an ideologically defined agenda than seems to be the case with Obama’s initial inner circle—excepting Emanuel, who was supposed to be more disposed to making compromises and cutting deals than the others.

The chief of staff is normally the point man in White House governance. This was especially so in Emanuel’s case because of his take-no-prisoners personality and, more importantly, his role as the administration’s chief contact man with a Congress whose leadership is in charge of much of the Obama program. Emanuel’s assertiveness might have been expected to foster bureaucratic food fights over primacy of place. He is said to have boasted early on that his West Wing office was eight square feet larger than the vice president’s; his Rolodex was reported to sag under the weight of six thousand names.

But there has been no sign that the president wants a first among equals on his staff: a counterpart, say, to Wilson’s Colonel House or FDR’s Harry Hopkins or George Bush’s Karl Rove. The customarily unflappable Obama was reported to have erupted in anger when a New York Times Magazine profile of Valerie Jarrett spoke of tension between her and Emanuel. Then came a Washington Post story touting Emanuel as the voice of moderation on the staff, counseling against the failed Copenhagen-Olympics trip and calling for a more restrained health care bill.

As in most administrations, the chief of staff becomes a focal point for evaluations of how the president is managing things. Supporters dwell on his indispensability; critics on how he is leading his boss astray.

In some ways Obama’s presidency still resists labeling. Despite its legislative successes, no one speaks of the New Foundation, the term by which he and his associates initially wanted his presidency to be known, as they do of the New Deal and the Great Society. His governance is most solidly grounded in the Democratic party’s Left-Liberal ideology. Yet that wing of the party is far from content with the Obama record. And Obama himself, buffeted by the 2012 election and, one can surmise, the ongoing heaviness of governing, often seems guided along his way not so much by ideological consistency as by a highly self-confident reliance on his political savvy.