The first piece of major policy was the crafting and passing of an economic stimulus package to help revive our floundering economy. With even a few months hindsight, the management of that bill by the President should be seen as one of the keys to understanding his view of the Presidency. For decades, the President has been seen not only as the Chief Executive, carrying out the laws passed by the people's and state's representatives in Congress, but as a crafter of legislation. As a student and teacher of Constitutional Law, one of Barack Obama's first goals was a restoration of the balance between the Executive and Legislative Branches of the federal government. To that end, rather than create some kind of New Deal style alphabet soup of new federal programs and agencies to dole out money directly, the President insisted the legislation use existing legal and regulatory structures for granting federal construction contracts to the states. In other words, while the Republicans were quite correct that the stimulus bill was nothing more and nothing less than the largest pork-barrel spending bill in the country's history, it was done with one-and-a-half eye's on a respect for the inherent Constitutional limitations on federal power.
As the months have passed, even as the President has made good on many of his campaign promises (his record of follow-through is unprecedented, really; he does as he said he would when he campaigned, a tribute to his personal and public integrity, as well as his belief in the necessity of restoring faith in elected officials), the President has been so restrained in his dealings with Congress that many of his liberal supporters have become frustrated with his relative reticence on many matters. Health care reform and the cap-and-trade bill would fare much better if only he would speak out in favor of them; not only his poll numbers, but the poll numbers of measures he favors jump every time he speaks. Yet, precisely because he respects the different roles of the executive and legislative branches, he maintains a certain silence as legislation is moving through Congress, seeing them as the chief arbiters of legislation.
Just a few days ago, I wrote this:
All the whining, all the cries of betrayal and failure by the left demonstrate a simple refusal to accept the democratic process in its gritty reality. We are barely six months out from the Bush Presidency, and we keep hearing there's not a dime's worth of difference between Obama and Bush. Obama is arguing against DADT; he's using Bush-era legal arguments for indefinite detention and maintaining a certain level of government secrecy. Now, on what should be the signature legislative accomplishment of his first year in office, he seems to be punting from his own end zone.
Today, Matt Yglesias writes this:
I know a lot of people on the left who seem to have voted for Barack Obama because they liked his progressive agenda, then gotten excited when Obama won the election because they liked his progressive agenda, then Obama proposed progressive measures to the congress and they were excited, then it turned out that key congressional players like Collin Peterson and Rick Boucher and Max Baucus were less left-wing than Obama so actually legislative outcomes would be considerably less left-wing than Obama’s campaign proposal. It’s all well and good to be disappointed with this situation but it doesn’t make a ton of sense to me to do what a lot of people seem to be doing and becoming disappointed with Obama.
I recall back during the primary campaign that there was a kind of misguided sentiment out there that the key factor influencing whether or not we could get comprehensive health reform or good energy legislation in 2009 was whether you believed Obama’s story about “bringing people together” or John Edwards’ story about “fighting” or Hillary Clinton’s story about gritty experience and determination. The fact of the matter, though, is that legislating is about who controls the veto points.
His commenters are as purblind as some of the folks posting at DailyKos. They just don't seem to get, for a variety of reasons, Matt's main point - Obama really is limited in what he can do. How many left-wingers now whining about Obama's silence, recalcitrance, and being in the pocket of various corporate interests predicted even two weeks ago the introduction of the two-word phrase "death panel" in to the health care debate? How many predicted that there would be an organized effort at right-wing hooliganism that is as successful as has been going on over the past couple weeks? Does the reality that Obama has indeed spoken out loudly and often, and received marginal press attention for it? How many could have predicted or did predict that there would be members of Congress who would buy in to the whole "birther" crap, or even the "death panel" garbage?
It is one thing to deal substantively behind the scenes to get people to support this or that piece of legislation. The public disinformation campaign, supported by the insurance industry but aided and abetted by anti-reform folks on talk radio, is quite literally outside the ability of anyone to predict and control. Since the entire set of lies put out there fit in to conspiracy theories, and any refutation of a conspiracy theory by the target of that theory only reinforces the beliefs of those who hold them, what could Obama, or any other Democrat, do or say to stop it?
We need to change the direction of our frustration to those responsible. While many social and political circumstances have, indeed, changed, there are enough vestiges of the pre-Obama, pre-Democratic majority in place to fight rearguard actions against serious progressive reform. The status quo may indeed be awful, but there are powerful interests who are still vested in it, and will fight to keep it, even if it destroys everyone and everything else.