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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Omnibus Spending, Card Check, the Tea Parties, and President Obama's Agenda

At least domestically, much of a president's power and influence comes from their perceived or real power to persuade. Much of that power comes from the president's real or perceived popularity. If the president is supported by the people, the president's agenda is supported by the people.

Legislatively of course, the president's power is a lot more tangential. Each and every piece of legislation has to go through the Congressional process. The president has little official power to move legislation through the process. Most of the president's power comes from the perception that challenging the president means losing electorally.

How did President Obama get through a piece of legislation that was nearly $800 billion? It's because his popularity was at an unprecedented level. He had that magical word of a "mandate". Once a president loses popularity, credibility, or in any other way political capital, the president has little Constitutionally that they can do to force their agenda through Congress.

For instance, according to Dick Morris, when Bill Clinton was impeached, he reached a deal with the Democrats in Congress. They would oppose his removal but in return the legislative process would be lead by the members of the legislature not by the president. The impeachment process effectively ended any domestic agenda that the president might have had at the time. Bill Clinton no longer had any power to influence his agenda.

President Obama has a very bold agenda. If he is done, he will remake this society and make it look very much like Western Europe. So far, he is accomplished only a little in that agenda. The stimulus on its own takes small steps toward a socialist democratic society but it won't be effective on its own. Still, down the pipe, the president is looking for health care reform (or universal health care), energy reform (including cap and trade), and tax reform (including a lot more taxes for the most affluent).

His ability to implement some, most or all of this agenda relies entirely in his ability to maintain his "mandate". That relies entirely on maintaining real or perceived popularity for this mandate. In order for the Republicans, to challenge some, most or all of this agenda they must chip away at his popularity, credibility, and thus "mandate".

For this reason, what has occurred surrounding the omnibus bill is quite corrosive to the president's mandate. The bill was not only a massive increase in spending, but it was loaded with more than 8000 earmarks. The president's opponents seized on the president's multiple promises to end earmarks altogether and they began to attack. The process turned even more sour for the president when the bill hit several roadblocks in its route to passage. While it finally did pass yesterday, it wasn't before the Republicans railed against the president and the earmarks for almost two weeks. By doing so, they also ate away at his credibility. While he continues to have a mandate, that mandate has been eroded some by the process. Mandates can disintegrate instantaneously like with President Clinton, or they can erode over time through a series of missteps.

Now, the president is allowing Congress to take up the contentious issue of card check. This bill forces everyone to choose sides. It's opposed furiously by most of the business community. Almost all Republicans oppose it. On the other hand, it is furiously supported by the labor community. Taking up a contentious issue is another great way to spend precious political capital. Just ask President Bush who made Social Security reform his main domestic agenda in 2005. In fact, President Bush announced in his initial speech that "I have political capital and I intend to use it". Use it he did and he had none left after that battle was waged. Contentious issues turn presidents into polarizing figures. Presidents can't avoid contentious issues and most eventually turn into polarizing figures. Of course, it's much better to use political capital on contentious issues that are part of a president's agenda. In this case, he is using precious political capital on nothing more than pay back for a significant backer, the unions. By doing so, he is using precious capital that he will need in a serious battle over climate change, taxes, and most of all, universal health care.

That's where the Tea Parties will also have a role. The next set of Tea Parties is set for tax day, April 15th. Already, every state has a Tea Party planned. The last time, each Tea Party had a few hundred people and about thirty thousand total. You can expect the next set to expand exponentially. Expect several thousand people at most every individual Tea Party and several hundred thousand people total. Nothing erodes a president's mandate, than a show of force against their agenda by the people he works for, the voters. The growth and strength of the Tea Party movement can, and will if successful, play a significant role in derailing his entire agenda.

The biggest potential derailment to the president's agenda is the health of the economy. In fact, everything else is largely of small consequence compared to the perception over whether or not the economy is being cared for. If the president looks as though he is a good caretaker of the economy, he has the mandate to mostly do anything he wants. If he looks as though the economy is overwhelming him, he will have the mandate to do nothing else. The public will not stand for health care reform if we are spinning into a depression. On the other hand, if his policies are viewed as stabilizing the economy, then the president will have the mandate to do just about anything he wants to do. As such, for the most part, the president's agenda depends entirely on the health, or at least perceived health, of the economy.


Anonymous said...

You make it sound like the Democrats would be absolutely powerless to stop you if the economy doesn't instantly improve. Don't underestimate the ability of the Democrats to make a compelling case that the Republicans trying to derail Obama's agenda are holding the recovery back.

That's the best part of bipartisanship, you can always blame the other guy when things don't work the way you want them to.

mike volpe said...

I don't know where you got that I said instantaneously. I said that the economy must be seen as working. The public will give the administration time, but so will it take time for most of this agenda to get through. All of these things work like a bicycle. The worse the economy falters, the less time the public will give the president.

I said the president's agenda largely depends on the economy being seen as being taken care of. That is true. I never said that unless the economy recovers right away that he can't get anything done.

The case is NOT compelling that health care reform is what is holding the economy back from recovering. In fact, the case is much more compelling that health care reform is distracting from the recovery.

That is a side issue. The president must get the banking crisis under control. He must at least be seen as having a handle on the situation. No one expects the banks to recover overnight, but the public does expect the president to quickly identify the problem and verbalize solutions. So far, he has done neither. The clock is ticking on that.

Anonymous said...

I read an interesting poll on this subject

Democrats ought to be reminding people that this is Bush's mess. They don't have to spell it out. Just the mention of the man's name will give two-thirds of the nation hives.

mike volpe said...

Yeah, that has diminishing returns. Blaming Bush is less and less effective the longer he isn't president.