Fire in the Belly

Kevin Drum wonders what Barack Obama's really passionate about:

If, for example, Obama successfully withdraws from Iraq, passes a climate plan that looks something like his campaign proposal, and implements his healthcare plan, that would constitute a stunningly successful first term even if you think he's too much of a milquetoast in every one of these areas. But are these the three things he's most likely to fight hardest for? I don't know. He's consistently solid in almost everything, but that very consistency makes it hard to figure out what he's really passionate about. Now that the primary is over, maybe we'll start to find out.

I kind of wonder, too. Still, I've also felt throughout the primary process that an undue amount of attention was being paid to this kind of question. In general, I think there's a tendency to overrate presidential character attributes and skill in determining what happens. Over the years, for example, I've read dozens of accounts of what the Clinton administration "did wrong" in trying to get their health care bill through. And Jimmy Carter is widely viewed as having been an "ineffective" president even by those who don't buy the History's Greatest Monster view of his administration. But in both 1993-94 and 1977-80 a big part of the problem was just the congressional Democrats.

If Obama wins the election, marginal Democratic members of congress will face a basic choice. They can decide that their political interests will be served by making the Obama administration a "success" and agree to pass stuff that resembles what he's proposed. Or they can decide that their interests will be served by distancing themselves from every controversial administration initiative. If they choose the former, marginal Republicans will feel pressure to get on board. If they choose the latter, marginal Republicans will stand firm. What will happen? I'm not sure. The ideological distance within the party is much narrower than in 1977 and 1993, but I worry that the incentives are still bad and encourage defection rather than discipline. Either way, though, I think the key decision-makers will be in congress rather than in the White House.