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Schoen and Caddell: You Know What’s Really Hindering Obama? Elections! [Updated]

November 13, 2010

In the Washington Post, Messrs Schoen and Caddell write that they know how President Obama can pull the trick and heal the planet and make the oceans recede after all. It’s simple and radical and thus bears the characteristics of genius. President Obama, they say, must simply declare that he will not seek a second term as president. Then he’ll be free to do all the good things he’s come to do, without the pressure of having to please an electorate — which is apparently what has ruined his tenure so far.

There are two assumptions holding up this idea. One is that what’s been preventing Obama from being a good president up to now was that pesky thing called elections: if you want to get reelected you can alienate only so many people (typically you should stay under 50%). And the other is that Obama, once freed from the burden of keeping in mind the will of the people, will, in fact, be able to be an effective, problem-solving president.

The French Cowboy thinks that both assumptions are false. Let’s look at Obama’s marquee accomplishment, ObamaCare. Whom exactly did Obama try to please with this gargantuan, messy law? The 2.1% of persons with pre-existing conditions who had been predicted to sign up for health care coverage within the first year? Or the big insurance companies that prefer a pact with the government over competition? In any case, it’s probably not the consistently north of 50% of voters who favour a repeal — not an adjustment — of ObamaCare.

Think about other Obama decisions: the stimulus, the expansion of TARP — both very unpopular; as well as his bizarre fight against Arizona’s immigration law. But also his inactivity regarding DADT which his base feels very strongly about, his failure to close Gitmo, his continuation of the drone wars, all of which frustrates his natural allies. If Obama is really fishing for an electorate then it’s hard to tell which one it is. For Obama to improve his policies once he no longer has to take into consideration the preferences of an electoral majority means that he usually does take them into consideration. I’m not convinced at all that this is the case.

Which leads me to the second assumption. Is it that Obama’s keeping an eye on 2012 what’s hampering his political success — an ironic thought — or is it rather that the one-term Senator from Illinois is inexperienced and incompetent? If the French Cowboy were a betting man his money would be on the second explanation.

Schoen and Caddell surmise that a President Obama relieved of worries about reelection prospects can “forg[e] a government of national unity, welcom[e] business leaders, Republicans and independents into the fold”, “stand[s] above politics” and “forge consensus”. Yeah, sure he could. But couldn’t he so far? Was Obama obliged to harp about President Bush’s alleged failures until even the Left got tired of it? Did he have to publicly tongue-lash the business sector, Wall Street, hedge fonds managers and insurance companies; even doctors? His tactics of singling out individuals on the Right — Limbaugh, Rove, Boehner — and subject them to attacks from the White House, were they not a choice?

The French Cowboy believes that Messrs Schoen and Caddell have honestly been looking for the most beneficial way in which the 2nd part of Obama’s term could be used. But it’s a bit strange to say that what’s standing in the way of good presidential leadership is Democracies’ quirk which holds elected officials accountable for their actions. With all it’s drawbacks, this is a feature, not a bug.

It’s true that the coming months will be very tough as reducing debt and deficits is never an easy task in any scenario and it’s notoriously difficult in democracies. But aside from Schoen and Caddell having probably too much confidence in both will and ability of Obama to do better than he did so far, what they write also sounds like the beginnings of the Tom Friedman syndrome — one that President Obama recently mentioned and seemed shockingly familiar with: “Today, we sometimes hear that democracy stands in the way of economic progress.” Monsieur le Président, I certainly hope you do not hear that all that often!


Another thought: Obama restricting himself to a one-term presidency for the sake of America’s advancement would make him a martyr, in a way, or not? A sacrifical lamb? (Is the French Cowboy going beyond acceptable levels of sarcasm here?)

And also: Libertarian-leaning economists like the idea of political gridlock in so far as a government that’s made of two sides blocking each others attempts to pour money into pet projects is good for the public purse. On the negative, they can also block each others attempts to cut spending. Probably exactly the point — among others — Schoen and Caddell are trying to make. But a smart president should and will be able to mediate and find common ground, and this is not something that voters punish at the polls. A public weary of partisanship likes a president who knows how to compromise. Besides, the deficit commission’s findings are a surprisingly useful product and give reason to hope.

And finally, mind you, I’m not at all opposed to the idea of a one-term presidency for Obama.

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