The most thrilling, and also the most ridiculous, presidential speech of modern times came not from an actual president, but from a fake one. Michael Douglas’ off-the-cuff remarks at the close of The American President (1995) were a liberal’s wet dream, and are seared permanently into the memories of millions who use them as a measuring stick against which all real politicians are found pathetically inadequate. Playing the lovelorn, overcautious, and put-upon President Andrew Shepard, Douglas (channeling screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) finally quit pussyfooting around and took down his populist-conservative-blowhard challenger (“This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your 15 minutes are up!”), while jettisoning an ineffective crime bill in favor of one that might actually solve problems (“You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and handguns … I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m gonna convince Americans that I’m right, and I’m gonna get the guns”).
It’s that last bit, of course, that’s so ridiculous – politically speaking. (Considering the massive arms race among America’s nutjobs over the past year, in response to a president who has never mentioned gun control, can you imagine the NRA buzzsaw a real President Shepard would face?) Still, the popular response to The American President was so great that Sorkin was given a weekly forum to indulge his penchant for political drama. The initial episodes of The West Wing featured occasional flights of rhetorical fancy, but focused primarily on the process of governing and the foibles (romantic and otherwise) of President Jed Bartlet’s staff. Indeed, the show, like Bartlet’s presidency, was too focused on all that stuff – particularly on the administration’s delicate minuets with Congress, lobbyists and cabinet chiefs. It wasn’t until Episode 19 that all the president’s men realized their caution and obsession with deal-making had prevented their boss from governing with the same verve and intellect with which he had campaigned — and that they were looking at a one-term presidency unless they loosed the reins and “let Bartlet be Bartlet.”
Our current, real-life president finds himself at a similar point right now, at a crossroads that likely will determine the course of his administration. Unfortunately, the extraordinary (if fictional) leadership skills of Jed Bartlet seem lacking in Barack Obama; in fact, the mess in which our commander-in-chief currently sits is entirely related to his failure to behave in more … commanding fashion. Obama seems to be the last man in America who respects our legislative branch – or at least the last one who doesn’t work on Capitol Hill or K Street — and his willingness to turn the details of lawmaking over to the entirely dysfunctional United States Senate is the root cause of his fading popularity. Sure, he put health care, climate change and banking regulation on Washington’s agenda — but unless he begins dictating not only that agenda, but the terms of debate as well, his policies will continue to twist in the breeze of extreme partisanship, zero-sum politics … and the whims of a fickle political “center” that quite obviously has no idea what it wants, and is content to watch the country self-immolate rather than make up its frigging mind.
Obama took a step in the right direction this morning by moving unilaterally to establish a deficit-reduction commission, circumventing the Senate’s refusal to vote for such a panel on its own (the product of more than a half-dozen typically shit-for-brained Republicans who abandoned their earlier endorsement as soon as the commission became a “bipartisan” idea). That decision builds, in baby steps, upon the momentum generated a couple weeks ago when Obama blew away GOP snivelers during an appearance at the House Republican Retreat – at which he demonstrated that while his opponents have a vast talent for lying and complaining, he retains a confident grasp of facts and the ability to appeal to the intelligence of people watching on TV, even if there’s none evident in the room itself.
He has a golden opportunity to retake control of the health-care debate during next week’s “summit” at Blair House, which already, by its very existence, is the “trap” Republicans have taken so much grief for fearing it will become. If McConnell/Boehner/etc. don’t show up, they prove once and for all an ugly recalcitrance that Americans aren’t likely to reward; if they do, their knee-jerk opposition to insurance reform and their weak alternative “ideas” will be exposed as political canards designed merely to foment discontent, not to serve the nation. If nothing else, Obama should be able to talk rings around the GOP leaders, who so strongly prefer the word “no” to actual debate because the logic behind their defiance inevitably withers in the light of day.
Obama can take several paths at the summit, but there’s only one he should take. The time has passed for remaining in the background while unpopular congressional leaders dither and bicker and cobble together bills that are easy to hate, impossible to love. Obama, at long last, needs to lay down the law and truly become the face of health reform. Accept a couple of Republican additions that will do next-to-nothing to fix health care, but won’t really hurt either (expanded tort reform, allowing interstate insurance commerce) – but only on the condition that the bill gets a guaranteed up-or-down vote in the Senate, and only with an alternate (and GOP-unfriendly) bill set to go straight to reconciliation if Republicans refuse to deal.
That’s the way legislatures are actually supposed to work — with the majority compromising as much as necessary with the minority, based on the latter’s relative strength, but with the assumption on both sides that some version of the majority’s agenda (i.e., “the public will,” as expressed through democratic elections) will pass into law. Of course, the GOP has turned that supposition on its head since the days of Newt Gingrich, but Republican disrespect for the process isn’t the whole problem. We’re now seeing that Howard Dean and Charles Schumer’s 2006-08 strategy of building Democratic congressional majorities by fielding moderate-to-conservative candidates in GOP strongholds was, if anything, too successful. It created a 60-vote Senate supermajority that, in reality, wasn’t a working majority at all. Instead, it gave off an aromatic scent of dominance that merely masked the stench of special-interest corruption (see Lieberman, Joe) and cynical deal-extraction (see Nelson, Ben), while providing Republicans the freedom to energize their base (and recapture the hearts of most teabaggers) by opposing everything in lockstep.
Now the Democrats in Congress are universally despised – by liberals, conservatives and everyone in between. Obama needs to quit relying on them to press his goals, to quit respecting the traditions and rules of order that the Senate’s own members no longer respect, and to begin implementing his agenda – both its popular and its difficult elements — without their help. He needs to sign a batch of executive orders implementing new regulations on the banks and insurance companies, setting lofty new emissions standards for industry, rescinding Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and whatnot — and dare Congress to overturn them. He needs to clear his slate of judicial- and executive-branch nominees with recess appointments – and let the Senate know he’ll do the same thing again on President’s Day 2011 (and 2013, and 2015) unless they get their shit together. He needs to throw Blanche Lincoln completely under the bus – she’s not worth saving, anyway – and let even Harry Reid know that his campaign support comes at a price (namely, the price of finally figuring out how to “herd cats,” as Trent Lott famously put it).
Chances of all this happening? Few. It’s clear by now that Obama fetishizes, above all else, his notion of “changing the way Washington works” – despite the huge opening it gives Republicans to defy him while simultaneously painting Democrats as too lily-livered to govern. If Obama’s idea of bringing change to the nation as a whole depends on his ability to douse DC’s partisan conflagration, we’re not gonna get much change at all. Forget “letting Bartlet be Bartlet” – Obama needs to start behaving more like George Bush, who earned Congress’ meek compliance (for four years, at least) via an early dose of threats and bullying … and, yes, via the liberal use of reconciliation, executive orders, recess appointments, and even signing statements.
I hated all that “unitary executive” stuff when Bush was president, and I still hate it today – but right now there is nothing in Washington more despicable than the United States Senate. (OK, maybe Dan Snyder.) Obama’s popularity may be down 15 points or so since his inauguration, but he is still, by far, the most popular guy in town. It’s time he stopped proving he’s not Bush, and started living in the political world that Bush and his GOP have created – a world in which might makes right, and in which executive-branch overreach is both the source of and the remedy for Congress’ incompetence.
I have no doubt that Obama, whatever his intentions, will put on a good rhetorical show at the health-care summit. But his failure to translate inspiration into action, on his own if necessary, has made me wonder if Hillary Clinton wasn’t right after all when she said his lofty rhetoric was all “just words.” I mean, seriously: Does anyone doubt that President Hillary, lording over a Democratic Congress (an institution she never revered the way Obama does), would have signed health care into law last summer — whether she had a 60-vote supermajority or her VP casting the tie-breaking vote?