If you take seriously the talking heads on the cable-news networks, you might believe that, less than four months into the Obama Presidency, the Obama agenda is rolling toward enactment and the Republican Party is in danger of dissolution. History would argue otherwise.
President Obama is enjoying public approval at about the level that previous Presidents have enjoyed at this early stage. Democrats have solid Senate and House majorities (with their Senate majority growing as Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter has changed parties and Al Franken is on the verge of certification as a Minnesota Senator). So soon after last fall's election, there is no single Republican leader who can serve as that party's rallying point. But it is far too soon to declare Obama and his program winners by technical knockout.
First, the matter of political mandate: Obama's victory in the 2008 Democratic nominating race was razor thin. His general-election victory over Sen. John McCain was solid but not as large as expected. The financial/economic crisis — hard economic times always favor Democrats — buried a McCain campaign that was still competitive at the time the recession struck. (A comparable foreign policy/national security crisis might well have elected McCain). Democrats had a huge financial advantage over Republicans and, down the stretch, were outspending Republicans 3 and 4-to-1 in major electoral states. The outgoing Bush administration was hugely unpopular. Yet Obama won the popular vote by only a bit more than 6 percentage points.
Obama's 2008 victory was nowhere near as large as those of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 or Lyndon Johnson in 1964, those to which it is most often compared. Democrats' Congressional majorities, likewise, are nowhere near as one-sided as those coming out of the 1932 and 1964 elections. In baseball terms, Obama's victory was 6-4 over the Republicans whereas the FDR and LBJ victories could be characterized as 10-1.
Why does this matter? Presidents with huge popular and strong Congressional majorities can operate with freer hands than those who must pay greater attention to minority opinion in the Congress and country. (Yet, in 1965, Johnson took extraordinary steps to generate Republican and business support for his Great Society programs). Obama's nominating and general-election campaigns stressed bipartisan cooperation and his desire to end polarizing gridlock in the capital, but as President Obama has talked bipartisanship but has governed in a one-party manner.
Obama's initial, defining action was the passage of a nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package which was mainly drafted by House Democrats after a process in which Congressional Republicans were frozen out. The package passed on a party-line vote. Since then, party lines in the Congress have hardened as subsequent proposals have been developed without Republican input.
Does Obama have enough public popularity and Congressional votes to jam them through on a one-party basis? Thus far the Obama White House seems to believe that he does. This likely is a miscalculation.
Party lines are hard to maintain: Specter, immediately after defecting the GOP, angered his new Democratic Senate colleagues by voting with Republicans on several issues. As a result, they stripped him of the seniority he had believed he would maintain after his party switch. His is no sure vote on any issue, especially on those where 60 votes are necessary to cut off debate and force a floor vote. There are at least a half-dozen, sometimes more, Democratic Senators who will regularly break ranks with their colleagues, depending on the issue.
Regional and ideological differences among Democratic Senators and House Members make it extremely difficult to maintain solidarity on any given matter. That will become quite clear, shortly, when energy and health-care legislation comes to Congressional consideration. One-party-drafted proposals, if they do not include input from the opposition party and independents, are extremely difficult to enact.
The White House must also learn to control its own proposals: Obama, new to the job, left the drafting of his stimulus package in large part to Congressional Democrats. He is doing the same, now, with development of his health-care and energy proposals. Historically, most major policy proposals — especially those involving big changes — have been developed within the White House, in cooperation with Congressional leaders (most often of both parties).
By contrast, Clinton's 1994 health-care reform proposal went too far in the direction of White House control. Hillary Clinton, who led the effort, excluded not only Republican but key Democratic Congressional leaders from the exercise, with disastrous result. Perhaps that is why the present Obama administration, populated in large part by Clinton alumni, has tilted so strongly in the opposite direction, letting the Hill develop the proposals while the President does the cheerleading for them. Almost certainly, though, this will lead to later trouble. Having let Congressional Democrats take the lead, the President will be placed in a position of either rubber-stamping or renouncing what they have done. A President needs unmistakeably to be in charge of his own agenda.
Another cautionary note: The "out" party normally gains in off-year elections, and Republicans stand to gain Senate and House seats in next year's Congressional elections. They did so even in 1934 and 1966, after national Democratic landslides of two years previously. Democrats also have gained Congressional seats in off-year elections following Republican landslides: it happened to Eisenhower in 1954 and Reagan in 1982.
So, far from nearing extinction, Republicans are likely to bounce back next year. Congressional Democrats know this. That is why Democratic incumbents are nervous about health-care, energy, and deficit-increasing spending proposals which might cause them harm in their reelection efforts.
It is far too soon for an alternative Republican national leader or agenda to have emerged. The rhythm of the political cycle dictates that next year's campaigns will be mini-referenda on the Obama administration's first two years. Although the President may remain personally popular next year, his policy agenda may not be nearly as popular. Precedent indicates that his personal popularity will be less than it is today and that his policy proposals will have generated opposition among various interest groups.
Early polling this week indicated that, already, Americans are about evenly divided on whether they intend to vote Democratic or Republican in 2010 Congressional elections. Some Republican gains are likely next year, even if their message remains unrefined and their 2012 national leaders not yet evident and popular.
I supported Obama's election and am pleased that Democrats maintain Congressional majorities. But tough legislative battles are yet to come. The end of the current economic downturn (likely, early next year) probably will not come soon enough to make a dent in the current high unemployment rate until fall, 2010.
These factors provide all the more reason that Obama should return to his bipartisan, consensus-seeking message of 2008. He and Democrats are unlikely to succeed if they think today's poll ratings will hold at their present level, so they must find a way to govern by reaching beyond their own party.