I Wonder If President Obama Really Believes This

By James Fallows

Read the two bits of testimony by Congressional staffers -- one Republican, one Democratic -- about the nihilist freefire zone that is the modern Congress. Then consider President Obama's Labor Day pledge:

"We've got a lot more work to do to recover fully from this recession," Mr. Obama said. "I'm going to propose ways to put America back to work that both parties can agree to because I still believe both parties can work together to solve our problems."

An objective observer must of course conclude that in fact there is no way "to put America back to work that both parties can agree to," because not agreeing is, for today's Republican leadership, a paramount goal.

It is admirable, even touching, that the President of all the people states his faith that "both parties can work together to solve our problems." But can he actually "still believe" this? Based on what vote? By what Republican? On what bill? At what point during Obama's time in office? It is hard to imagine that he has not noticed the real-world evidence. So if he has observed reality and knows that no matter what he proposes the GOP simply will not sign on, what's the next move? And lot depends on whether and when the "Mr. Reasonable" strategy pays off.

(Update: Andrew Sprung argues that other parts of the same speech showed more willingness to name the Congressional Republicans, not just "Congress" or "Washington politics," as the barrier to getting anything done. Judge for yourself.)

For more on the intentional destruction of our system of self-government, here is another note from a former staffer to a Republican U.S. senator, with emphasis added:

>>I'll spare you a lengthy reaction to the Mike Lofgren piece, as by now you've probably been bombarded by many others.  As another former Hill staffer, though, let me make a few observations:
 
First, Lofgren underestimates the influence of the mechanics of permanent campaign politics, both on politicians and on public dialogue.  We do, as he says, have more goofy types in Congress than we used to -- because we have more safe Congressional Districts than we used to.  Even in statewide races, electoral politics is now a science, not an art.  This means it is possible to know with increased certainty what is required to win a given election, as it was not only a few years ago.  Election being the foremost preoccupation of every elected official, the influence of this fact on Congress is profound.
 
Second, Lofgren's observations echo those of Mann and Ornstein in The Broken Branch a few years ago.  You will be familiar with this book, which sounded as a voice in the wilderness during Bush's second term.  The fecklessness of Congress then, its indifference to its own rules, and its eagerness to avoid politically risky exercise of its Constitutional responsibilities is a very small step -- to be precise, the step taken by the American public in electing a Democratic rather than a Republican President -- from what we've seen this year.
 
Third and finally, let me add a couple of things drawn from my own experience.  I worked for a Senator in the majority party, who chaired an Appropriations subcommittee in the late 1980s.  He was neither the best nor the worst legislator ever to serve on the North Side of the Capitol, but I can tell you that neither he nor any of his fellow subcommittee chairmen were indifferent to the pressure they would have gotten from other Senators if they hadn't gotten their appropriations bills passed in a timely way.  This meant, as a rule, not just before the end of the federal fiscal year but far enough before it to allow action by the full Senate and negotiations with the House.  An Appropriations subcommittee chairman who failed to move his bills would have damaged his career in the Senate, and the same was true in the House.  It isn't true any longer -- the FY 2011 appropriations bills, every one of them, were not enacted until FY 2011 was half over.  This would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
 
There are still some Senators left from that earlier time.  I think it should be noted for the record that they have surrendered what Mann and Ornstein call the institutional patriotism of the Senate without a fight.  I have in mind Sens. Cochran, Lugar, Hatch and McCain in particular -- men who made their public lives in the Senate, but having served long past their time could not find the strength to lift a hand in its defense.<<

Cochran, Lugar, Hatch, McCain -- more names to note in chronicling how we've ended up where we are. As a late bonus, after the jump one more analysis of what has gone wrong with politics, this one with at least a suggestion of what might do some good.

A reader writes:

>>I think you and your congressional staffer are exactly right about the conservative stragtegy to kill confidence in governing institutions generally. I would argue that Katrina, with its tribal and government optics, whatever the truth, was the greatest conservative triumph of the last 20 years. I think that illustrates what a contemptible force this "conservatism" is, but it doesn't change the effectiveness.

However, I would take issue with this sentence: "it builds a nihilistic suspicion of any public effort, from road-building to Medicare to schools" because of its inclusion of Medicare. If there is one thing health reform showed, it is that Medicare, more than supported by the voting public, is craved, depended upon, treated as an axiom. It is also, as you well know, so much huger on a federal level than road-building or schools as to constitute a category difference.

I would argue that "Keep government out my Medicare" is the most important political development, by far, of the Obama administration. I keep coming back to the fact that 60 percent of seniors voted Republican in 2010. If you were to reduce that to white seniors, it would almost certainly top 70 percent. Those white seniors don't hate government; they consume it more voraciously than any other age and demographic cohort. They just don't recognize it as government, but they will if anyone really tries to take it away. Hence Paul Ryan's breathtakingly cynical 54-year-old cutoff for his voucherization of Medicare.

Those white seniors think of government as Katrina, bumbling along trying to help a hapless, undeserving foreign tribe. They want government to fail because they don't actually think Medicare and Defense is "government." But, from a budget/deficit point-of-view, those two are EVERYTHING.

The truth is that the core of the Republican party is now white seniors, the most government-loving in reality, but government-hating in abstract, demographic of our society. How we/Republicans/Democrats deal with this tribal/economic reality paradox of perception is the central political question of our time.

My own bet is that when a 68-year white woman named Hillary Clinton, who has done nothing but distinguish herself in largely non-controversial foreign policy roles, runs for president in 2016, that there will be a rather overwhlemingly realignment. If I were a conservative strategist, that political scenario, Hillary Clinton running as the candidate of Medicare, would terrify me.<<

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/09/i-wonder-if-president-obama-really-believes-this/244567/