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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Obama Misread His Mandate

After a rough week for health care reform, Democratic leaders appear to be pulling back on their demand for a public option. It remains to be seen whether liberal Democrats, especially in the House where they are more numerous, will go along with this. But this is still a step in the right direction to get something passed this year.

The public option was an overreach. The White House's erroneous belief that it could get it through the legislature - or at least that it could let four out of five congressional committees push it - was a misinterpretation of last year's election results. It has already made a similar mistake with cap-and-trade, backing a House bill that appears to have no chance of success in the Senate.

Bismarck once commented that politics is the art of the possible. So far, the White House has not exhibited a good understanding of exactly what is possible in this political climate. It has been acting as though the President's election was a major change in the ideological orientation of the country.

A lot of liberals certainly saw it as such. All the strained comparisons of Obama to Franklin Roosevelt were a tipoff that many were talking themselves into the idea that the 2008 election created an opportunity for a substantial, leftward shift in policy. Yet the election of 2008 was not like the 1932 contest. It wasn't like 1952, 1956, 1964, 1972, 1980, 1984, or even 1988, either. Obama's election was narrower than all of these. FDR won 42 of 48 states. Eisenhower won 39, then 41. Johnson won 44 of 50. Nixon won 49. Reagan won 44, then 49. George H.W. Bush won 40. Obama won 28, three fewer than George W. Bush in his narrow 2004 reelection.

This makes a crucial difference when it comes to implementing policy. Our system of government depends not only on how many votes you win, but how broadly distributed those votes are. This prevents one section or faction from railroading another. It is evident in the Electoral College and the House, but above all in the Senate, where 44 senators come from states that voted against Obama last year. That's a consequence of the fact that Obama's election - while historic in many respects, and the largest we have seen in 20 years - was still not as broad-based as many would like to believe. Bully for Obama and the Democrats that they have 60 Senators, but the fact remains that thirteen of them come from McCain states, indicating that the liberals don't get the full run of the show.

For whatever reason, the Obama administration has acted as if those hagiographical comparisons to FDR were apt. It let its liberal allies from the coasts drive the agenda and write the key bills, and it's played straw man semantic games to marginalize the opposition. For all the President's moaning in The Audacity of Hope about how the Bush administration was railroading the minority into accepting far right proposals - he was prepared to let his Northeastern and Pacific Western liberal allies do exactly the same thing: write bills that excite the left, infuriate the right, and scare the center; insist on speedy passage through the Congress; and use budget reconciliation to ram it through in case the expected super majority did not emerge.

This might have flown during FDR's 100 Days. But this is not 1933 and Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt.

Now that his legislative agenda is stalling, we're seeing the predictable critiques about the outdated United States Senate, which is the real source of the bottleneck: the Connecticut Compromise was meant to protect the interests of small states, but not states that are this small. Rhode Island, yes. Wyoming, no! These arguments will be conveniently tabled whenever the Democrats return to minority status, so I won't bother to address their merits. The bigger question is: what did they think was going to happen? It's one thing to bemoan the fundamental unfairness of the Senate; it's another thing to overlook it when you're formulating your legislative program. The map is what it is: that big swath of red that runs through the middle of the country then swings right through the South should have been a tipoff that the stage was not set for coastal governance.

The President should have realized what was possible and what wasn't, and he should have used his substantial influence to push the House toward the kind of centrist compromise the Senate will ultimately require. That's called building a consensus - something he promised he'd do but has not yet made a serious effort at.

-Jay Cost