By Luke Brinker
Ezra Klein notes that liberal hopes – and conservative fears – that President Barack Obama would usher in a New Deal-style political realignment have not panned out. Many liberals (and I include myself in this category) often make the mistake of blaming Obama for insufficiently progressive policy without sufficient account for the constraints he confronts.* But despite unilateral executive decisions that are decidedly anti-liberal – the abandonment of EPA smog pollution rules, the appointment of Wall Street-centric economic advisers, and the adoption of Bush-era civil liberties policies, to name a few – many disappointments stem from congressional inaction, Klein notes.
Obama may not have pushed hard enough for a public option in health care reform, but it was conservatives like Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, and Max Baucus within the Democratic Senate caucus who scuttled hopes for a government-run competitor to private insurance. In 2009, the House passed a cap-and-trade bill to combat climate change, but Senate gridlock condemned it. Hispanics are disappointed that Obama hasn’t signed comprehensive immigration reform, but anti-immigrant demagogues in Congress consistently defeat any attempt to overhaul the system. Obama didn’t pursue a large enough stimulus, but just look at Congress’s unwillingness to move on key components of the president’s jobs proposal; it’s clear that legislative support for meaningful action on the employment front is lacking.
In jest, we often muse, “If I were president, I would X.” Nobody seriously believes that the president has the unilateral power to, say, legalize marijuana or ban cigarette smoking, but these musings reflect a society that sees the president as the focus of political power. Not only is such a world undesirable – absolute power corrupts absolutely, as JFK said – but it’s plainly not the world we live in. There’s also a judicial branch with significant power. (Citizens United and Roe v. Wade, anyone?) With three coequal branches of government, the executive branch is but one player in a government based on checks and balances.
Obama may not be living up to liberal hopes, but that’s no excuse for his erstwhile supporters to stay home in 2012. It underscores the imperative of electing a Congress that’s equally committed to making sound public policy.
*This kind of progressive pressure serves a purpose. Even if it pushes beyond what Obama can achieve in current circumstances, it can help shift the terms of political discussion. That’s what a large part of Occupy Wall Street is about.