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Why Bad News for Dems in 2010
Could be Good News for the President

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Congress. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

On this Presidents Day, it would appear that everyone but the President’s rivals for public affection are doing well in the polls.

Hillary Clinton has shed the image that she is a soft liberal and she is well poised to say, “I told you so,” about her erstwhile charge that Barack Obama lacks experience and fortitude. Even Dick Cheney is doing well, with the public behind him and against civilian trials for terrorist suspects. And we just found out that Evan Bayh is bowing out, probably to escape the anti-incumbency wave on the horizon even though recent polls put him 20 points ahead of his competitors. Given that Bayh left his party less than a week to scramble to collect 4,500 signatures for a viable candidate for his Senate seat, he appears to be setting himself up for a future run as a centrist Democrat who stands up to party apparatchiks. (And here’s another clue: “I am an executive at heart,” Bayh told reporters on Monday.)

The only people doing worse than Obama are Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic Congress as a whole. As Evan Bayh put it, “I do not love Congress.” The atmosphere now in Washington is toxic and the poison is leaking down Pennsylvania Avenue and inundating the White House. That is why I am wondering if White House strategists are secretly hoping to lose Democratic control of Congress this year.

The conventional wisdom is that whatever the President proposes, Congress delivers. But not only has this not happened, the failure of Congress to act collectively to pass legislation (especially on
healthcare reform) has tarnished the name of the Democratic Party of which the President is titular head. As a result of the seeming asset of unified Democratic control of all branches of government, Barack Obama could not do what Reagan did when he too suffered from bad poll numbers in his first years in office as a result of recession – blame the other branch. The American people love to hate Congress, and unified Democratic control of all the elected federal branches has merely reinforced the Americans’ instinctive fear of consolidated power as the Tea Party Movement most viscerally represents. The American Presidency thrives on blame avoidance and freedom from party ties, not single-party government.

Because Washington moves so slowly no matter who is in power and when it does it invariably creates a program so sullied with pork-barrel compromises, it is often better to be able to blame someone else for failing to deliver than to have delivered anything at all. Lyndon Johnson doesn’t get high marks from historians for creating Medicare. And FDR’s fame did not come from the Social Security Act. If we do not judge presidential success by legislative achievements, then presidents are better off when they act unilaterally against a recalcitrant Congress. Better still if this Congress is controlled by another party because presidential unilateralism can be executed without dilemma. Barack Obama would then be free to descend from the law professor’s lectern, as Sarah Palin put it, and move, as Publius recommended, with “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.”

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