Monday, August 17, 2009


A "Prince" Neither Feared Nor Loved?

Longtime Thots observer ERA e-mails a question that's been bothering me of late as well:
"Why is the President of the United States not feared on Capitol Hill or anywhere? The guy won a national election by the largest margin by a Democrat in 50 years. Yet, whatever deadline Obama sets, whatever particular 'legislation' he asks for, Pelosi, Waxman, the Blue Dogs, Conrad & Senate Democrats all respond the same: You will take what we give you and like it. What's up with that? Does Obama enjoy being loved more than feared? For a supposed educated man, has he not read Machavelli?

. . . . And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved. . .. .

. . ..Returning to the question of being loved or feared, I sum up by saying, that since his being loved depends upon his subjects, while his being feared depends upon himself, a wise Prince should build on what is his own, and not on what rests with others. Only, as I have said, he must do his utmost to escape hatred. -- Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), The Prince.

"Even George W. Bush had a good six years of being feared before becoming irrelevant with Congress, and Bush won by much slimmer margins than Obama. Yes, all of the six years there was a GOP Congress, but there is a Democratic Congress for Obama. FDR and LBJ impossed THEIR wills on Democrat majorites as newly elected presidents. Why is Obama letting Reid and Pelosi yank him around?"
It's arguably even worse than that: Bush actually had a Democratic Senate for more than a year and a half, but still got his measures through. Even after the Jim Jeffords switch caused the Senate to flip to the Democrats in the late spring of '01, the Democrats approved Ted Olson as Bush's solicitor general -- the same Ted Olson who won Bush v. Gore in front of the Supreme Court. A forceful Republican White House pushed through a new president's priorities -- in much the same fashion he wanted them in the first place.

This Democratic White House has instead chosen to defer to the Democratic Congress. Ironically, the White House staff was -- according to a New York Times Magazine piece earlier this summer -- constructed precisely to give the White House more of a say in how policies were crafted coming out of the legislative side of Capitol Hill:

The first senator elected directly to the Oval Office since 1960, Obama has an entirely different theory of how to exercise presidential power, and he has consciously designed his administration to avoid Clinton’s fate. After winning the office with the same kind of outsider appeal as his predecessors, he has quietly but methodically assembled the most Congress-centric administration in modern history. Obama’s White House is run by Rahm Emanuel, a former House leader who was generally considered to be on a fast track to the speakership before he resigned to become chief of staff, and it is teeming with aides plucked from the senior ranks of both chambers. Obama seems to think that the dysfunction in Washington isn’t only about the heightened enmity between the parties; it’s also about the longstanding mistrust between the two branches of government that stare each other down from twin peaks on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

And so, from Obama’s perspective, passing a health care plan this fall isn’t primarily a question of whether to include an “individual mandate” requiring every American to have insurance or how fully to regulate providers or even how to hit back against “Harry and Louise”–type attack ads, although his aides spend time contemplating all of those things. It’s more about navigating the dueling personalities and complex agendas within his own party’s Congress. Rather than laying out an intricate plan and then trying to sell it on the Hill, as Clinton did, Obama’s strategy seems to be exactly the opposite — to sell himself to Congress first and worry about the details later. As Emanuel likes to tell his West Wing staff: “The only nonnegotiable principle here is success. Everything else is negotiable.”

Alas, for Democrats, any "success" coming out of the Congress at this point is going to look like something akin to "failure." And, despite Obama's aforementioned plan to assemble a Congress-friendly staff, the result is becoming perilously close to the fate suffered by Obama's Democratic predecessors, Carter and Clinton -- as The New Republic's Jonathan Chait predicted in the spring:

The contours of failure are now clearly visible. In Obama's case, as with his predecessors, the prospective culprit is the same: Democrats in Congress, and especially the Senate. At a time when the country desperately needs a coherent response to the array of challenges it faces, the congressional arm of the Democratic Party remains mired in fecklessness, parochialism, and privilege. Obama has made mistakes, as did his predecessors. Yet the constant recurrence of legislative squabbling and drift suggests a deeper problem than any characterological or tactical failures by these presidents: a congressional party that is congenitally unable to govern.

But, the question of governance is a double-edged sword. Yes, the "congressional party" can't seem to govern -- but why can't the executive part of the Democratic Party manage to demand allegiance either? As Maxine Waters noted a couple weeks back, a good portion of the Blue Dog Democrats in the House owe their seats to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who recruited them when he was the head of the Democratic Congressional Committee.

Emanuel was brought in as a White House enforcer. Is he the problem -- or does it ultimately come down to his boss, again, the man who seemingly would prefer to be loved rather than feared. Given his eroding poll numbers, it's starting to look like he's going to end up being neither.

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