Obama’s approach to governing

by on December 2, 2008  •  In Uncategorized

By Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books:

Starting during the debates, and then quite clearly in his election-night speech, Obama has sought to tamp down expectations of how much he will be able to get done, and how quickly. This is not just a matter of budgetary constraints. Some liberals who were passionately for him may be disappointed by his agenda. A couple of weeks before the election, one of Obama's closest advisers told me that he would govern "from the center." Even as he campaigned, Obama spoke of his desire to have broad majorities behind his proposals, as the only way to effect significant and lasting change. In seeking to form broad coalitions, including with some Republicans, in support of his ideas, he will be making trade-offs that won't please all of his followers. The devoted student of Abraham Lincoln wants to "think anew."

Obama has spoken a great deal about seeking bipartisanship, but how much this is attainable is yet to be known. The Republican ranks on Capitol Hill will have shrunk as a result of the election, and will be more dominated by the right. Few moderate Republicans in the Senate—Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe among them—remain. In the House, there are only seventeen Republicans from the eastern states between Maryland and Maine, and none from New England. Obama seeks to set a new tone in Washington, but House Republican leaders, and those jockeying for leadership positions, like Eric Cantor (Virginia) and Dan Lungren (California), are playing to their conservative base and are sounding as partisan as ever—if not more so. They appear disinclined to give the new President any cooperation, shortsighted though that may be for their party….

Obama, who won 53 percent of the vote (to McCain's 46)—the highest percentage of the vote by any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson's landslide in 1964—and thus can claim a mandate, won't govern as a traditional Democrat.

His campaign was a combination of audacity and caution—and he may be more cautious in general than some Democrats or others will like. He's spoken of a bold energy-independence program that will also be designed to create new jobs; a job-producing program to improve the nation's infrastructure; a reform of health care of unknown scope at this point; tax cuts for the middle class; and improvements in education. He'll probably have to fix the financial bailout, about which the Bush Treasury Department blundered badly, and will try to get help to the automobile industry while pushing it in a new direction. (That the Treasury Department's first approach was wrongheaded was apparent to some at the outset; but once again the administration rushed Congress into a "crisis" decision.) At the same time, of course, Obama will be trying to end the war in Iraq and dealing with the situation in Afghanistan, and meeting other urgent international challenges.

But he won't do many of the things that Democrats usually call for: the reform of health care will be less sweeping than what's been proposed in the past; labor won't get everything on its agenda; and there won't be dramatic cuts in defense spending. Some liberal Democrats have signed on to a more limited approach to government, but others are pressing for bolder action.

In his first press conference, three days after the election, Obama firmly stated that he wanted Congress to pass a measure to stimulate the economy, either in the lame-duck session or shortly after the new Congress convenes in January. In the face of Republican opposition, with Obama's concurrence Democratic leaders have put off consideration of a large stimulus bill until the new Congress—with its swelled Democratic ranks—convenes. Members of Congress feel that they were elected, too, and they have rights to promote their own bills, and seek to influence the new President's priorities. (Kennedy is urging that the incoming Congress consider a health care program earlier than Obama may want.)

Just how far Obama had already got in putting his stamp on Congress was demonstrated by a statement two days after the election by the very powerful House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who tightly controls the House agenda. Pelosi, more pragmatic than her liberal reputation suggests, said, "The country must be governed from the middle." She added, "You have to bring people together to reach consensus on solutions that are sustainable and acceptable to the American people." Senate leader Harry Reid also agrees with Obama's approach. These leaders are loath to have the Democrats overreach—and risk a backlash….

The nature of Obama's triumph will be significant to his governing. His victory was across the board, and was aided by gains among almost all voting groups. He made a large advance among Hispanics (it was said during the primaries that they wouldn't vote for an African-American), who voted for him 67–31; he won among voters under thirty by thirty-four points (Kerry had won them by nine points and Gore by two). He also gained markedly not only among African-Americans but also among Catholics, midwestern voters, and, notably, suburban voters. He did far better than McCain among highly educated voters.

The only age group that went for McCain over Obama was of people over sixty-five, among whom Obama did better than he was expected to. On election night, the most perceptive of the television analysts this year, Chuck Todd, NBC's political director, said that Obama owed his victory to no particular segment of the population, that "no one group put him over the top." Todd added that Obama could have won without a single vote of young people, Hispanics, or blacks….


2 Responses to Obama’s approach to governing

  1. Darren Hutchinson December 2, 2008 at 10:27 AM

    “Todd added that Obama could have won without a single vote of young people, Hispanics, or blacks….”

    I agreed with just about everything in this article until the last sentence. Obama would not have won several (edit — “many”) states without black and Latino votes. He lost white votes in 11 states that he won. So, he would have lost 11 additional states without blacks and Latinos.

  2. Nan Hunter December 2, 2008 at 11:39 PM

    Your comment sounds right to me in that Obama did not win the majority of white votes. (See chart here: link to pollster.com) But I think the meaning was that he could have won without any ONE of those groups, ie he could have won without black votes so long as he had carried the same % of Latino and young voters, etc

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