Politics are paralyzed. The minority party is motivated by a desire to have the president of the United States fail, while the squishy majority is in disarray, drawing into question its capacity to govern. Congressional leadership of both parties is inept and ineffective. The result is drift and inertia, a pathetic situation befitting a banana republic.
Divided government need not mean gridlock, however. Political history demonstrates that despite partisan differences and jockeying for favor, the system works.
Dwight Eisenhower swept to victory in the 1952 presidential election, carrying with him a Republican Party that had been rejected for 20 years. The Republican majority proved short-lived, and for the last six years of Eisenhower’s two terms he worked with a Democratic Congress. He governed effectively, aided, no doubt, by the fact that real congressional power often belonged to the alliance between Republicans and Southern Democrats. (That alliance fell apart years later when the Republican Party, in true bipartisan fashion, overwhelmingly supported civil rights legislation in 1964-65.)
Richard Nixon, who took pride in his “firsts,” had the dubious distinction of being the first president elected twice without carrying his party to power in Congress. Still, Nixon governed effectively for the most part until his self-inflicted wound. Conflict and hostility surely existed, yet Nixon and Congress agreed on some notable legislation. The same holds for Ronald Reagan, whose party never controlled the House during his terms, and ruled the Senate only sporadically.
The notion of “divided government” apparently had popular approval then. The concept had significant appeal to students of the Constitution who saw it as a virtue for ensuring the effectiveness of the separation of powers. “Gridlock” seemed an alien, distant concept.
Effective, inspiring leadership can prevail, even in the face of partisan or ideological opposition. Leadership in this country means presidential leadership. Given the now-prevailing gridlock and the resulting failure to implement promised changes, the focus inevitably is on President Barack Obama. What went wrong?
Following Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, the media and political commentators invoked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “100 Days,” that hoary, simplistic benchmark by which they intended to judge the new president. The true importance of FDR’s 100 Days was not legislative accomplishments -- his early successes pale next to his later, more permanent achievements -- but rather the power and force of presidential leadership.
Roosevelt came to power denouncing the “money changers in the temple” and the “economic royalists” who had rent the economic and social fabric. FDR followed his excoriation of the “money changers” by noting, “They have no vision and where there is no vision, the people perish.” Curiously, the iconoclast of 1933 stood in sharp contrast to the conservative campaigner of 1932, rooted in glittering generalities as well as the old shibboleths. He proposed a balanced budget and the Economy Act to reduce government spending by 25 percent.
But President Roosevelt embarked on bold, new paths. “Our primary task is to put people to work,” he said, and he introduced both stimulus measures and the dramatic, new concept of government as the employer of last resort. FDR became the rallying force for both restoration and change.
Barack Obama and his advisers fashioned a brilliant campaign, one that defeated the favored Democratic candidate, repudiated the policies and ideas of the incumbent president and gained the improbable election of an African-American president. Obama promised many things and set lofty goals -- “change” was his leitmotif, including a new way of doing politics in Washington, a retreat from the adventurous, questionable foreign policies of George W. Bush, and, in general, a constant appeal to our better selves. Obama’s soaring message unquestionably aroused the traditional electorate and also energized a broad array of new, young voters.
The “Obama Moment” should have begun in his first 100 days, however artificial and ahistorical that time frame. FDR was many things, but what stood out clearly was his bold grasp of power and the mantle of leadership. He offered a call to arms and action to inspire the nation’s faith in its “rendezvous with destiny.”
FDR used his moment to offer hope for recovery from the dark abyss into which the United States had fallen. 2009 was not 1933 in either its scope or depth of depression. Yet Barack Obama’s history-shattering election had the mark of a mandate for fueling his oft-expressed calls for change -- and hope. Bogged down in two apparently intractable wars, and burdened with staggering and soaring costs for maintaining its empire, the nation suffered its greatest economic calamity in more than 70 years. The paralysis of the credit and banking machinery brought in its wake a devastated stock market, a general economic downturn, unemployment, home foreclosures and the loss of private pensions, among other misfortunes.
The Obama Moment had come -- and was gone with his inauguration. The time was ripe for meaningful action to revitalize a deeply wounded and troubled nation. It was not to be.
The new president and his advisers soon dashed the promise of November with his major appointments, which offered a too-painful reminder of the past. In quick order, he named Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, both enablers of the disastrous policies of the past three decades, to head his economic and fiscal team. Both men had close, warm ties to Wall Street bankers, precisely those in need of new regulatory actions to curb their excesses, and both had problematic personal issues.
Obama just as quickly signaled his intention to largely continue George W. Bush’s foreign policies and the militarization of foreign policy as he appointed Gen. James Jones as national security adviser and Adm. Dennis Blair as head of the intelligence community.
The president named Hillary Clinton, a strong supporter of the Iraq war and who had mocked his notions of change in foreign policy, to be secretary of state. And he continued Robert Gates’ tenure as defense secretary. When was the last time that a Republican president felt compelled to appease his opposition by naming a Democrat to a key post? Meanwhile, Greg Craig lost his job as White House counsel because of his advocacy for closing Guantánamo.
Alas, candidate Obama, the bold, dynamic advocate for change, has morphed into President Obama, a terribly cautious man, too eager to please and compromise. He displayed an unwillingness to challenge an opposition that wished him only ill and failure, whether for personal or policy reasons. Instead, he ironically allowed the drift of “politics as usual,” and he failed to deliver the message to the country that he had a mandate to change failed, disastrous policies.
Someone remarked that Obama won the pot but left his winnings on the table for Sens. Max Baucus and Charles Grassley. Some bipartisanship. Both men acted to prevent any testimony in favor of a single-payer health care plan. Should we be shocked? Baucus was the largest recipient of contributions from the health industry. Grassley was not far behind, of course. Meanwhile, Baucus and the administration spent months coddling Grassley, conceding his pet measures despite their being inimical to “reform,” and what did they get? A cranky senator who led that conjured, made-for-media campaign against “death panels” and who finally heard the message from his leaders and cohorts that Obama must not succeed.
The president allowed the likes of Baucus and Grassley to run the debate. Finally, Joe Lieberman, the “senator from the insurance industry,” exercised his one-man veto to kill a “public option,” upon which the president had lavished generous words of vagueness. Lieberman did so with impunity (besides his usual self-righteousness), probably realizing full well there would be no reprisal, no loss of his committee chairmanship. The failure of the president and the Democrats to rid themselves of the strutting Lieberman even after he no longer was needed for a 60th vote speaks volumes. Meanwhile, the mistakes of the president, his advisers and his congressional leaders resulted in increased weakness, an inability to govern and the hardening of political fault lines.
Timing is everything. The flood of calls for new faces has some merit, although much of it is motivated by the long knives and memories of former insiders. (See Leslie H. Gelb’s article “Replace Rahm” in The Daily Beast.)
President Obama is at the heart of the problem. He set his own table at the outset and his accommodating ways have only weakened him -- and, worse, emboldened his enemies. The president is perceived as timid, floundering and reluctant to act. He is wounded. Can he recover? Can he hold on to congressional majorities and can he govern as the man we elected? Only if he adopts the boldness and cunning of his more effective predecessors.
Stanley Kutler, a UW-Madison professor emeritus, is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings. This column first appeared on truthdig.com.