The Unbearable Heaviness of Governing: The Obama Administration in Historical Perspective

The Unbearable Heaviness of Governing: The Obama Administration in Historical Perspective

by Morton Keller

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Taking a critical look at the realities that have shaped the first stage of Barack Obama's presidency, Morton Keller offers a history-focused examination of Obama's developing style of governing, with particular attention to his signature policies of the stimulus, financial, and health care reforms. The author considers this presidency in light of the facts of contemporary political life and the nature of key government institutions, such as Congress and the bureaucracy, and discusses what may lie ahead for the president's policies and political prospects.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817912642
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 11/01/2010
Edition description: First Edition, 1st Edition
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Morton Keller is a professor emeritus in history at Brandeis University and a legal and political historian.

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The Unbearable Heaviness of Governing

The Obama Administration in Historical Perspective

By Morton Keller

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1266-6



RAHM EMANUEL is reported to have said to President Obama at the end of 2009: "You know, Mr. President, Franklin Roosevelt had eight years to deal with the economy before he had to lead a war. You have to do it all at once."

It's an old courtier's rule that you can't over-flatter the king. But this instance suffers from historical distortion. The Great Recession of 2008–2009 was not the Great Depression of 1929–1939. Nor are the Iraq Drawdown and the Afghan Surge the Second World War.

Still, it is easy to see why Obama's chief of staff adopted this mode of discourse. Comparisons (celebratory, derogatory, and analytical) of Obama with his heavyweight predecessor FDR were thick on the media ground before and during his accession to the presidency. But by the summer of 2009 it was widely noted that the fall in Obama's favorability rating, from the high 70s to the neighborhood of 50 percent, was the most substantial in the history of the modern presidency, with the exception of Gerald Ford.


Surely much of the explanation for this slide from grace lay in the fact that no chief executive could live up to expectations as elevated as those of his more ardent supporters (and, indeed, of himself). Nor is it surprising that the incumbent — even one so verbally gifted and attractive in public personality — would pay a price for unemployment that remained stubbornly high and a world scene that did not get noticeably more benign.

As the months passed, and the chattering classes endlessly parsed, it became common currency that both the style and substance of his governance had serious inadequacies. "Yes He Can," Newsweek tartly observed in November 2009, "(But He Sure Hasn't Yet)". Triumphal evocations of the New Deal and the Great Society faded. Hopeful analogies with a triangulating Bill Clinton, who survived into a second term, and more pessimistic ones with a star-plagued Jimmy Carter, who did not, became the norm.

Obama hit the ground running in January 2009 with the élan expected by those who saw great things in him. His Inaugural Address did not quite match Lincoln's Second (or even Lincoln's First). But it was an acceptably eloquent declaration of his intentions and beliefs. While he did not equal the early legislative outpourings of FDR and LBJ, his economic stimulus and budget bills were proposed and enacted with considerable dispatch. And major health care and energy legislation, core elements of his campaign platform, quickly came before Congress. Education and immigration waited expectantly in the wings.

In sum, an expeditious start for the New Foundation. But well within the Hundred Days that had come to serve as the gold standard for presidential leadership, doubts and reservations began to surface. Unlike Bush's TARP bank bailout, whose support (and opposition) were impressively bipartisan, Obama's stimulus package won the votes of no House and only three Senate Republicans. His budget fared no better.

Budgets are intensely partisan creations, and sharp party division is the norm. But the Stimulus Act was widely regarded as an extension of Bush's TARP: the next phase of a national, and not just a partisan, response to the biggest economic challenge since the Great Depression. Yet Obama sought neither to set the terms of this legislation nor to assure it a bipartisan face. Instead, he turned it over to the House leadership, who had no mantle of bipartisanship to discard. The result was in effect the requisition sheet of a Democratic-liberal wish list. The tropistic Republican impulse to oppose was amply nourished by this sustenance, and the result was the first partisan fire bell in the political night.

By the end of March, two months into Obama's term, The Economist summed up the prevailing view of the president: "Coming Down to Earth." By January 2010 the magazine (prematurely) found Obama's journey concluded: "The man who fell to earth." Mega-investor Warren Buffett, another supporter, worried that "you can't expect people to unite behind you if you're trying to jam a whole bunch of things down their throat."

But Obama's ambitious legislative program was not in itself the problem. After all, he had given ample notice that his would be an active presidency. Rather, it appears to have been the disconnect between his campaign mantra of governing in a less partisan manner and transcending the old ways of the past, and the all-too-evident persistence of party politics, earmarks, lobbyists, and favored interests, that soured so much opinion so quickly.

That Obama sought to govern more from the Left than the center should have come as no surprise, given his political past and the leanings of his core supporters. But many of those who voted for him were not so ideologically inclined. While the Obama honeymoon was still under way, polls suggested that Americans if anything tended increasingly to lean conservative, not liberal. And the opinion infrastructure of the Right — Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, conservative bloggers, pundits, and think tanks — kept up a constant, and consequential, critical refrain.

By the summer of 2009, Obama seemed to be losing his way. This was not unique: FDR went through several slack periods during the creation of the New Deal. The need to recalibrate is an accepted part of the presidential-legislative process. And Obama's congressional majorities, while solid, were less than those of FDR and LBJ (though certainly more than those of George W. Bush).

The initially well-disposed Left found growing grounds for dissatisfaction, as both the substance and the implementation of its most valued legislative goals faltered. Obama's propensity for talk-fest "summits," though hardly his invention, came in for a pasting. More severe critics focused on what they took to be his underlying intentions. There was talk in the Right of his being the most left-wing president ever, of nurturing a socialist or at least a European social democratic agenda.

As comparisons with FDR and LBJ declined, analogies with Jimmy Carter grew. Columnist Peggy Noonan thought that, like Carter, Obama "was brilliant at becoming president but not being president." The other newly popular analogy, favored by those more predisposed to the president, was with Bill Clinton. Moderate Democratic consultant Douglas Schoen spoke hopefully of Obama emulating Clinton in tacking to the center. He remembered Clinton telling him: "I'm way out of position. I was elected as a centrist, and now I'm perceived as a liberal Dem[ocrat]. I have to change that, and I've got to put some space between myself and Congress."

But Clinton himself, as seemed to be the case with Obama, initially read his victory as a mandate to respond to his party's ideological core rather than to the less committed center. Bush adviser Karl Rove observed that "Obama has not governed as the centrist, deficit-fighting, bipartisan consensus builder he promised to be. And his promise to embody a new kind of politics — free of finger-pointing, pettiness, and spin — was a mirage." Fair enough. But much the same could be said of the president Rove served — and of the counsel he offered.

It is true that Bush got major legislation — substantial tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, Medicaid prescription coverage — through less favorable congressional terrain than Obama traverses. But he assumed an increasingly polarizing persona — political, ideological — that eventually earned him a national unpopularity well beyond anything that Obama has had to face.

This suggests that what led Obama to a strongly partisan course of leadership was not solely the dictates of ideology or the goad of high ambition, but a persisting reality in recent American politics. Polls show a strong predilection among the increasingly decisive independent voters for less intense partisanship, an ideological Middle Way. But the political class tends to favor the ideologically skewed and intensely partisan stances that their party cores prefer. Republican strategist Alex Castellanos observed: "Obama has tried so hard not to be George Bush and [the early] Bill Clinton, and yet he is becoming exactly that."

Doubts about where Obama sought to lead the country merged with doubts as to the efficacy of his leadership style. The impression grew that he was drawing down on his stock of public goodwill by the frequency of his exposure and the repetitiveness of his public persona: mildly hectoring, more than a little professorial. Peggy Noonan observed: "He never seems to be leveling, only talking."

His reliance on a teleprompter became a source of ridicule. The satirical magazine The Onion reported a crisis in the Obama household: a teleprompter failure while he was lecturing one of his daughters during the family's Sunday dinner. Satire morphed into reality when two months later it emerged that Obama had used the device in a talk to elementary school children.

Obama's reiterated commitment to systemic, foundational change and his readiness to let Congress tend to the legislative nuts and bolts while he devoted himself to didactic instruction of the masses is reminiscent of Carter. Even more, it summons up the shade of Woodrow Wilson. Like Wilson, Obama is most comfortable in an instructive mode. He gave 263 speeches in the first 233 days of his presidency, including 122 on health care reform — whose difficulties he blamed in part on his failure to sufficiently convey the bill's virtues. FDR gave only four fireside chats in 1933 and twenty-seven over the course of his twelve years in office.

Obama shied away from give-and-take with reporters, as media obeisance began to fade. From July 2009 to well into 2010, he held no formal press conferences. FDR had almost a thousand of them in his long presidency.

By early 2010 it appeared that the efficacy of the Obama leadership style was wearing a bit thin. His less-than-successful Olympics and global warming visits to Copenhagen, and most of all the frustrations attendant on his health care initiative, led the White House in February to announce a revamping of its communications strategy: to respond more quickly to his political opponents, to focus more intensely on his call for "change," to use his time more effectively. But changes in message or personnel were conspicuously absent; Obama displayed a Wilsonian stubbornness. Finally, in the March 2010 health care victory, his governing style — summed up by New York Times columnist David Brooks as half Harvard Economics department, half Boss Daley — chalked up a major success.


An early analysis of Obama's prospects warned: "[he] must avoid forms of administrative aggrandizement that alienate citizens from government, and ... must forego leadership strategies that threaten the independence and integrity of the party apparatus." On the first count, his record so far has been decidedly mixed. On the second, it has been decidedly successful.

The most conspicuous measure for evaluating Obama's leadership is his success in getting Congress to enact his legislative program. Even when one party controls both branches, this is by no means inevitable. The message taught by history is clear. While the Democrats had substantial majorities of about eighty in the House and up to twenty in the Senate, the record of the past suggests that party predominance is a thin reed on which to rest the success of his program.

True, the threat of a presidential veto is not in play. But the constraint of a Senate filibuster, a device increasingly resorted to by both parties in recent years, made the sixty-vote requirement to invoke cloture an equally important check on simple majority rule. And it is a self-evident fact that the larger the Democratic majority, the more it includes members from often Republican-leaning states and districts, and hence the larger the number needed to avoid gridlock on a given piece of legislation.

So far there is little evidence of the strains between president and Congress that so quickly characterized, and for so long plagued, the Carter administration. The members of the leadership could not but be pleased by Obama's readiness to let them take the legislative reins. Given the forces that feed the autonomy of members of Congress, Obama's readiness to do so may have been as necessary for him as it was satisfying to them.

But necessity did not foreclose difficulty. The left wing of the Democratic Party has as outsized a voice in Congress as Southern Democrats did in the pre-civil rights years. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Energy and Commerce chair Henry Waxman, Ways and Means chair (until March 2010) Charles Rangel, and Financial Services chair Barney Frank represent constituencies as solidly Democratic, and as strongly Left-leaning (San Francisco affluent, black, Jewish), as the districts of the old Southern barons were bastions of white supremacist-Democratic sentiment. Of the twenty-one most influential House Democratic leaders, sixteen came from districts that went for Obama by an average of over 70 percent.

Heavily blue-state California assumed the same dominance in the leadership that Texas had in the Rayburn-Johnson era, or the South at large before the 1960s. Pelosi symbolically defeated Texas Congressman Martin Frost to become Speaker. She saw to it that her fellow-liberal Californian Henry Waxman replaced the more accommodating John Dingell of Michigan as Energy and Commerce chair.

Other Californians in places of power were George Miller in Education and Labor, Jane Harman in Intelligence, and Senators Barbara Boxer in Environment and Public Works and Dianne Feinstein in Intelligence. When ethics problems forced Rangel to leave the chairmanship of Ways and Means, Pelosi initially sought to replace him with Pete Stark, yet another Californian, noted even in that free-wheeling political world for his off-the-charts remarks and behavior. This was a bit too provocative; he was quickly replaced by Sander Levin, a Michigan representative more closely attuned to mainstream America.

On the eve of Obama's inauguration in December 2008,The Economist took note of the filibuster danger in the Senate, where the Democrats at the time were one shy of the sixty seats needed to invoke cloture. The journal thought that this would induce Obama to refrain from narrowly partisan lawmaking and restore the tradition of bipartisan votes on major legislation. It estimated that there were about twenty-three centrist Republican and Democratic senators; it was to them that Obama should turn.

Why did Obama instead give over his legislative agenda to the highly polarized leadership of Congress? Just as Democratic presidents from FDR to LBJ had to deal with the at-times politically dysfunctional consequences of the Southern leaders, so it might have seemed prudent to rein in the Californians. It would be difficult to argue that Pelosi, Waxman, and Company embodied mainstream American political attitudes.

There has not been much evidence (or at least report-age) of tension, ideological or procedural, between Obama and the congressional leadership. Journalist Matt Bai observed that Obama's is "the most Congress-centric administration in modern history." Presumably not unrelated is the fact that Obama has issued fewer executive orders than his immediate predecessors: less than fifty by the end of March 2010. FDR produced 674 in his first fifteen months, LBJ 130 in 1964 and 1965.

Explanations for this deference abound. Surely one has to do with Obama's clear preference for the art of public persuasion over the craft of bill-making. He seems most at ease facing a supportive audience, a photogenic human backdrop behind him, teleprompters purring. Only when health care entered into its climactic gridlock phase did he throw himself into the legislative mosh pit.

The disparity between the promise of a Hundred Days or a Great Society, and the reality of an increasingly frustrating year-plus culminating in the drawn-out health care imbroglio, cast a shadow over Obama's dealings with Congress and his legislative agenda. There are structural (or, in the jargon of our time, systemic) reasons for the character of that relationship. The increased autonomy of senators and representatives, with their own funding, single-minded constituencies, and decreasing reliance on their party or their leadership, is a prime fact of modern American political life.

For all that, Obama's initial record of accomplishment was by no means picayune. The stimulus package, a $3.6 trillion budget, the energy and health care bills passed by the House, expanded health care for children and an increase in the minimum wage, a broad reform of the financial system: these were respectable accomplishments. And in March 2010 the administration staggered, shakily but triumphantly, over the finish line in the race to enact Obamacare.


Excerpted from The Unbearable Heaviness of Governing by Morton Keller. Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Governing 9

Chapter 2 Fixing the Economy 35

Chapter 3 Into the Maze: Health Care 69

Chapter 4 Contexts: Analogy and Ideology 109

Chapter 5 Unfinished Business: Policy and Politics 137

Notes 161

About the Author 177

Index 179

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