Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Politics: Obama's Enemy May Be Democrats

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Unsurprisingly,'s Nate Silver beat me to the punch. In a post earlier today, he explained in more detail why it is not possible to determine whether 2008 was a re-aligning election, an opinion I only briefly expressed in the introduction to a post questioning the state of the US electorate last week. The immensely popular Silver and I agree that whether this proves to be an election that moves the US out of the rightward shift that has dominated since 1980 will largely be determined by the success of the Obama administration. I believe that Obama himself likely has the skill set to effect a lot of needed changes in the country--his biggest enemy will not likely be the Republicans or rogues within his administration, but in the broader Democratic Party.

Contrary to Republican claims during the campaign, there seems to be every reason to believe that Barack Obama will pursue a moderate or moderate-liberal agenda during his presidency, not an especially liberal one. For one thing, the current financial crisis means that there simply isn't the money available for lots of new domestic spending. Even if there were, Obama's tax proposal--basically restoring the tax rates on wealthy Americans in place before the Bush administration--and his health care proposal--representing far less change in the system than the now-infamous Clinton proposal in 1994--do not suggest the kind of fundamental change and increased government involvement that characterized the New Deal of the 1930's or the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. The third major tenant of his campaign after the economy and health care, a withdrawal from Iraq, hardly seems like a wild left-wing policy when it is supported by most moderates in the electorate. Obama didn't campaign against gun rights or as a promoter of gay marriage, called for a reduction in the number of abortions while maintaining abortion rights, and sounded more like Bill Cosby or even Bill Bennett in talking about parental responsibility. If he spends political capital on a left-wing social issue early in his presidency, the way Bill Clinton tried to change the treatment of gays in the military, it would be a real surprise considering that he has talked mostly about focusing on the economy.

However, that very focus on the economy and all of Obama's rhetoric about a "new politics" and reaching across the aisle may do little to satisfy his own Democratic Party. In control of both the presidency and the congress for the first time since 1994, there are some Democrats who may not be satisfied with some economic reform and stimulus and modest health care reform. To just cite a few prominent interest groups within that party's coalition, is impatient to withdraw troops from Iraq, unions are impatient for the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, and teacher's unions aren't overjoyed with Obama's pro-charter school positions. If those or other groups see actions they don't like, or lack of action on things they want, they may create some serious problems for Obama in trying to move forward with his agenda.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom on why the Jimmy Carter administration proved to be so unsuccessful in the late 1970's, despite a Congressional majority for the Democrats, was that Carter could not lead the more liberal factions of the party in Congress. Legendary columnist David Broder wrote a column on this way back in May, warning that Obama could face a similar problem as an outside-the-beltway figure who might want to govern more moderately.

Yet, there seem a number of signs that not only will Obama avoid the mistakes of Clinton's early presidency, but he will also avoid those of Carter. Some are structural--while few members of Congress owed Carter or Clinton any debt for winning their seats, Obama actually appeared to have modest coattails. The new Democratic members in Congress not only may not only feel some gratitude to Obama, but they tend to be from traditionally Republican areas and hence are more moderate than the rest of the caucus. Congressional leaders wanting to solidify their gains would be loathe to set up those colleagues for a loss in the next election. More importantly, Obama seems to be making an effort to reach out to Congress. While Carter's transition lead (and later chief of staff) Hamilton Jordan was from Georgia and reportedly clashed with Congressional leaders from day one, Obama has selected a member of the House of Representatives, Rahm Emanuel, to be his Chief of Staff. The wartime cooperation from the Bush administration in the transition, as exemplified by the early vetting of Obama's team for security clearance and the visit of the Obamas to the White House last week, may not directly address Congress but means there will be less distraction for the transition team so that they can focus more on interacting with Congress.

It's still very early to make any judgment, but the early indications are that President-Elect Obama may pursue a relatively-moderate, potentially very popular agenda that may actually be supported by Congress. If that does come to pass, we might indeed look back on 2008 as a re-aligning election and only a mid-point in a leftward shift of the political pendulum.

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