Donald Berwick and the High-Water Mark of Obamaism

 

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.

There are 9 comments.

  1. Contributor

    I’m persuaded, Matt, that the Democratic Congress is wobbling toward impotence. But a presidency is still a powerful thing. Might that not be enough? Plus, do you really think Republicans will be able to halt Obama’s policy agenda if they fail — or, as it will be put in all the papers, FAIL!!! — to recapture even one house of Congress? At this rate, wouldn’t such a failure touch off a painful, incapacitating round of searching souls and rolling heads?

    • #1
    • July 9, 2010 at 2:18 am
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  2. Contributor
    Matthew Continetti Post author

    The presidency may be enough to nominate judges and run foreign policy, but to enact major reforms requires congressional cooperation and assent. So George W. Bush was able to prosecute the Iraq surge despite the Democratic Congress, but his domestic agenda was a nonstarter, even on issues such as immigration on which he and the Democrats held common ground.

    I think most Republicans and conservatives understand the high threshold required to take back the House and Senate. Failure to do so may cause the media to cheer and a fair amount of conservative thumb-sucking, but a center-right majority of Republicans and conservative Democrats would still control the House, re-orienting the direction of our politics.

    What will be lost after this year’s election, no matter the final tally, will be Obama’s aspirations for a liberal transformative presidency. He could still be the president who enacts major tax and entitlement reforms that produce balanced budgets and economic prosperity. But I don’t think that’s where his heart is, nor where his ambitions lie.

    • #2
    • July 9, 2010 at 3:09 am
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  3. Contributor

    Matt, I appreciate your optimistic take on the situation. But how is this any different from the cadre of czars that Obama appointed at the beginning of his term? 

    • #3
    • July 9, 2010 at 3:48 am
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  4. Contributor
    Matthew Continetti: What will be lost after this year’s election, no matter the final tally, will be Obama’s aspirations for a liberal transformative presidency. He could still be the president who enacts major tax and entitlement reforms that produce balanced budgets and economic prosperity. But I don’t think that’s where his heart is, nor where his ambitions lie.

    I can’t say I’m convinced, yet, Matt, but you’ve thrown me off the trail with that hugely evocative last line of yours. What happens if Obama indeed is unable to transform but unwilling to triangulate? What will his heart whisper? What will his ambitions demand?

    • #4
    • July 9, 2010 at 4:18 am
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  5. Inactive
    James Poulos, Ed.

    What will his heart whisper? What will his ambitions demand?

    As Mr. Continetti noted, Obama has “aspirations for a liberal transformative presidency.” That and insanely high popularity, kid-glove treatment by the press, and an occasional Nobel Prize. (He’s practically Harry Truman, so down-to-earth is the man.)

    I have to admit to a certain fascination in watching the rivets pop in the Obama White House. He’s holding it together so far, but if his popularity sinks deeper — and particularly if he becomes the butt of jokes — it could get scary. Johann, from Das Boot scary.

    • #5
    • July 9, 2010 at 6:32 am
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  6. Contributor
    Matthew Continetti: 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.

    Matt, am I wrong to worry about the manner in which Obama circumvented even a hearing on Dr. Berwick’s appointment? Obama can muscle pretty much any nominee through the chamber, and a recess appointment is always available in the unlikely event of a filibuster. But Obama and Reid appear to have pre-empted even a public hearing, undoubtedly on account of Berwick’s recorded pinings for health-as-wealth-redistribution. The calculation appears to be that the mainstream media will turn a blind eye. Is this truly a sign of weakness, or just more arrogance?

    • #6
    • July 9, 2010 at 7:16 am
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  7. Contributor
    Matthew Continetti Post author

    George, there’s no reason it can’t be both weakness and arrogance!

    Why did Obama and Reid want to avoid a public hearing on Berwick? Because the health care overhaul is unpopular, and the idea of rationing even more so.

    But I’m also not so sure that “Obama can muscle pretty much any nominee through the chamber.” His muscles weren’t strong enough to get Dawn Johnson through the Senate, or Robert Harding. Berwick may well have met a similar fate, since Democrats have no desire to take a political risk in the months before what they know is going to be a bad election. Hence the turn to a recess appointment.

    The recess power is legitimate; Obama’s use of it does not trouble me. Especially because the decision reveals that Obama’s influence over Senate Democrats, and the body at large, is waning.

    • #7
    • July 10, 2010 at 9:54 am
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  8. Member

    “…but a center-right majority of Republicans and conservative Democrats would still control the House, re-orienting the direction of our politics”

    This part of your comment, Matthew, bothers me because I’ve not seen any evidence that moderates do anything when they have control of Congress. I admit to a certain amount of anti-moderate dislike, much like Zapp Brannigan distrusted the Neutral Planet, but I can’t recall a time a moderate block in Congress moved the body toward anything but a confused and meandering stasis.

    • #8
    • July 10, 2010 at 11:06 am
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  9. Contributor
    Matthew Continetti Post author

    Jimmie,

    I meant that even if Democrats maintain control of the House of Representatives, a center-right majority of conservative Republicans and moderate-to-conservative Democrats would be in a position to block liberal initiatives from Pelosi and company (a VAT, for example). A “confused and meandering stasis” is preferable, in my opinion, to majorities that allow liberals to enact bad laws.

    • #9
    • July 13, 2010 at 12:26 pm
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