Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Will Obama Take Advantage of His "Parliamentary" Moment?

If the election day goes as expected, come January 20, a Democratic president will be supported by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. When something like this happens, as it has with less frequency in recent decades, it's the closest we get to a parliamentary system in the United States.

Under a parliamentary system, of course, the majority party or parties who form majority coalitions to control the legislative mechanism of a country, "form a government," installing legislators to become, simultaneously, the executive branch.

There have been advocates of parliamentary government in the US. The young political scientist and historian, Woodrow Wilson, for example, was keen on the parliamentary system, largely in consideration of the dreary profusion of weak presidents and strong Congresses that prevailed, with few exceptions, from the administrations of Martin Van Buren to Chester Alan Arthur. During Grover Cleveland's first term and especially during the tenure of William McKinley, arguably the country's first modern president, with both good and bad implications, Wilson began to see the wisdom of our constitutional system mandating checks and balances between three coequal branches.

The branches of government tend to act jealously in maintaining their constitutional perquisites despite party affiliations with those in charge of other branches. Democrat Bill Clinton couldn't get a health care package through a Democratic Congress. Jimmy Carter had fits in his relations with Democratic Congresses and often got his warmest support from Republicans. John Kennedy, though admittedly tepid at best in supporting civil rights, got very little support from a Democratic Congress.

In spite of this, in recent decades, American voters have tended to engage in more ticket-splitting, reasoning that presidents of one party and Congresses of the opposite party place an extra-constitutional check on parties, which after all, the Framers had devoutly hoped wouldn't become a feature of US political life. (Many of them just as devoutly enlisted in the Federalist or Democrat-Republican camps once the new constitutional government was up and running.)

During the midterm elections of 1962, Kennedy ridiculed the idea of ticket-splitting in order to check the parties, saying that it was a prescription for getting nothing done, ignoring, again, that most of his troubles in passing the New Frontier legislative program came from his fellow Democrats.

But in extraordinary years or those perceived as extraordinary, US voters tend to vote in Presidents and Congresses of the same party. In 1932, for example, the country embroiled in the Great Depression, voters elected Franklin Roosevelt and a Democratic Congress. In 1964, the nation grieving over Kennedy's assassination, focused on domestic issues as at no time since December 7, 1941, and alarmed by a Republican nominee even moderately conservative Republican voters--including my deeply conservative Southern Baptist uncle--regarded with alarm, gave Lyndon Johnson and congressional Democrats landslide mandates.

The breadth and depth of the victories likely to be enjoyed today by Barack Obama and Democratic congressional candidates bode well for the new president being able to get his legislative package through Congress with little trouble. He's apt to get writer's cramp from signing his preferred legislation into law, becoming a latter day Roosevelt or LBJ. Unlike Clinton, who never got a majority vote from the electorate and was therefore seen as an eminently resistible character by his fellow Democrats or Jimmy Carter, who got just a scoonge over 50% of the vote in 1976, had a dramatically different ideological orientation from liberal Democrats in Congress, and displayed little facility for compromise, Obama is likely, initially, to get his way with Congress.

Obama can feel good about that. But this is also where the dangers to majority parties play out in parliamentary systems and parliamentary-like circumstances. When executive and legislative branches are so absolutely aligned, the electorate knows exactly who to credit when it's perceived that things are going well and who to blame when it's felt that they're going badly. In short, on January 20, Barack Obama is likely to face a set of political circumstances that any self-respecting President would love to have. With great opportunities go great risks.

In the 1966 midterm elections, just two years after "Landslide Lyndon" and the Democrats' victory had pundits speculating that the Republican Party was either being consigned to permanent minority status or actual oblivion, the GOP roared back with the election of a number of moderate Republicans (and Ronald Reagan in the then-conservative state of California) to governorships and congressional seats all across the country. Voters were dubious of Johnson's "guns AND butter" fusion of a costly and questionable war in Vietnam with his Great Society program.

If the program of Obama and the Democrats is viewed with similar wariness in 2010, the likely events of this day will turn into very distant memories.

But nobody should underestimate Barack Obama. Eight years ago, he struggled to get a ticket into the audience of the Democratic National Convention. Four years ago, an unlikely choice to deliver his party's keynote address, people began talking him up as a future president. And during this election cycle, he has shown remarkable discipline and facility in taking on the most entrenched and able political operators within his own party, the Clinton allies, and then taken advantage of pre-existing conditions for a Democratic win to roll onto an apparent win. This guy has the instincts and the honed abilities of a an able pol and he has been handed the sort of opportune moment that anyone who has ever wanted to be a leader would crave. Barack Obama appears to have a rendezvous with destiny.

The question is, which Obama will take the oath of office in January? Will it be the congenitally cautious guy who voted "present" numerous times in the Illinois state senate? Or will it be the soaring orator and extraordinary political operator who, heedless of cautious counsel, including my own, ran for president, defeated the Clintons, and missed no opportunity to garner the mandate he appears poised to receive? His speech in Berlin leaves no doubt that Obama will function effectively as chief of state, a compelling face for America in the eyes of the world.

But will he take advantage of his political moment to be the country's prime minister, working with Congress to mold the agenda intimated by his win, accepting the accompanying risks?

It will be fascinating to see how Obama answers that question in the next four years.

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