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Friday, January 22, 2010  

Sack Up, Presidential Edition

Throughout the last year, I've tended to give the president the benefit of the doubt and train my first complaints on the Congresscritters--Democrats and Republicans--who have slowed down, watered down, or generally peacocked their way out of dealing with the president's agenda like grown-ups. It's been pathetic, really, that the Senate in particular has accomplished so little given the scale of what's needed.

But the first signs out of the White House following the special election are not at all encouraging. In short, it seems that Obama is doing what he has habitually done when the odds start falling: walk away and insist that it's someone else's problem. Now, I'm all for picking one's battles, but this is one he already picked--one he will be identified with forever, win or lose. As Polonius tells Laertes, "Beware / Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, / Bear't that th'opposed may beware of thee." Well, Obama's repeated insistence that he only lays out principles and he isn't actually committed to any specific proposals just won't cut it here. He pushed this issue, he insisted on it being a year-one priority, he knew (or is morally responsible for knowing) that despite his best efforts to buy off the interest groups involved that they would have the long knives out, both openly and through their GOP janissaries, from the start. And he entered the quarrel.

And what, I wonder, have "th'opposed" learned from it so far? That the president has a glass jaw. That he has no stomach for a real fight, no willingness to get dirty and bloody, no appetite to push the procedural envelope or punish the wayward or take ownership. What we are witnessing, here and now, is the end of the Obama administration's domestic agenda--nothing less.

The supposed lessons of 1994 are in the air these days. How any Democrat who thinks that the way to avoid repeating a mid-term debacle on the heels of a torpedoed health care bill is to torpedo another health care bill can manage to tie their own shoes is beyond me, but I don't get paid to understand these things. In any case, the point isn't just that a whole lot of Democrats lost, it's that they squandered an opportunity that didn't come back for fourteen years. Bill Clinton did just fine, cohabiting rather successfully with a Republican Congress. But his chance at being a president who changed the face of American politics was over, never to return. His greatest legacy was a budget in long-term surplus, but George W. Bush managed to squander that forever in a few short years.

If Congressional Democrats want to summon up what Evelyn Waugh called "ostrich cunning" and try to survive by pretending not to exist, there's not much but ordinary intelligence stopping them. But Obama had better be mindful of what's at stake for him here, too. He came in with stronger majorities in both houses and a popular tailwind Clinton lacked (Obama won 53% of the vote, ten points more than Clinton in 1992's three-way race). He is facing the loss of the House and a severely narrowed margin in the Senate. And if that happens--when that happens--he will be able to do no more than lean gently on the tiller as the ship of state drifts toward fiscal and economic foundering. Even if the economy recovers and he wins a second term, he is very unlikely to get another shot like this one.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:10 AM
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