The (understandable) outrage over President Obama’s recess appointment of Donald Berwick to run the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services masks an important fact: Obama’s mastery of Congress is almost certainly over.
To understand why, recall that President Bush’s recess appointment of John Bolton to the post of U.N. ambassador was an early indicator that the Bush Doctrine was running into tough opposition and Dubya’s second term would not be as successful as his first.
Similarly, during his first year, the large congressional majorities the Democrats accumulated between 2006 and 2008 allowed President Obama ample room to enact his agenda. Majorities fade, however. Power ebbs. The first sign of trouble came when Scott Brown gave the GOP a 41st vote in the Senate. The Democrats still were able to win passage of health care reform thanks to reconciliation. But consider the situation today.
The prospects of financial regulatory reform are murky, due to Brown’s (and Democrats Feingold’s and Cantwell’s) opposition. The chances of a second big stimulus are practically nil. The majority has trouble extending unemployment insurance and passing a budget resolution. The Democrats can dream, but it’s extremely unlikely that this Congress will act on climate and immigration. The Obama-Pelosi-Reid machine is running out of gas months before Election Day.
And at that point the situation will only get worse for the Democrats. Even if the Republicans do not take a single house of Congress, they will increase their presence in both chambers to such an extent that the Democrats will be unable to pass anything as ideological as the stimulus and cap and trade and health care. Congress will shift to the right, and the president, if he wants to legislate, will have to shift with it. The only alternative for Obama will be to fall back on presidential authorities such as executive orders, the veto power, and recess appointments.
In a strange way, then, it’s a good thing for conservatives that Berwick got his job. Otherwise we would not have known that the high-water mark of Obama-ism already has passed.