With an Incredible Shrinking President, It's the Congress, Stupid

Despite the celebrity-obsessed media's focus on every detail of Obama's daily life, many fights will be determined in the Congress. We can't rely on the president to veto bad things or use the bully pulpit to pass good things.
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The Huffington Post's Sam Stein and Ryan Grim have a story posted declaring that the Democratic Party is "leaderless" because President Obama has refused to assert himself on health care reform -- and specifically on the public option. They report that Obama "is actively discouraging Senate Democrats in their effort to include a public insurance option" and is pushing them to make it contingent on a so-called "trigger" -- that is, on a legislative provision that has been the safest way to kill health care reform in the past.

What's surprising, of course, is the surprise itself. I'm frankly shocked that anyone thinks either the capitulation or the lack of presidential leadership is anything other than predictable -- and further that the presidential passivity is automatically a horrible thing.

As I reported in a previous column, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was one of the architects of the trigger idea when it was used to protect the pharmaceutical industry just a few years ago -- and he's the guy who has been pushing the trigger in the current health care debate for months. So the White House has been not-so-quietly advertising its willingness to capitulate for some time now.

But arguably as important as the specifics of this health care fight is the White House's overall willingness to set aside the bully pulpit and let Congress drive the train on the toughest fights. Indeed, the White House is publicly bragging that the president is entering a "quiet period" right now -- which should underscore a very important lesson about this president that I highlighted in a magazine article way back in February of 2008.

In a piece back then for In These Times entitled "It's Also the Congress, Stupid," I suggested that candidate Obama's statements and behavior suggested he would be a Reagan-esque executive -- that is, a more passive president who gave Congress room to work out legislative details on particularly contentious issues. I specifically projected this out on health care:

To again cite the healthcare hypothetical, it is easy to imagine a President Obama calling for universal healthcare with certain broad parameters, letting Democratic congressional leaders wage the trench warfare needed to pass it, and then signing a final bill -- even if it ended up being more progressive than what he had in mind.

Admittedly...Obama's potential aversion to the veto pen might halt him from obstructing progressive bills, but it may also prevent him from stopping conservative ones that should be blocked.

I'm no Nostradamus -- and my prediction wasn't some act of genius. I believed this would be the dynamic due to the fact that Obama, both in rhetoric and in policy, has always been conflict averse -- and that tough issues like health care, climate change and Wall Street reform do not comport to such a "unity" posture. Instead, because they inherently question the status quo, these issues inherently evoke conflict, and Obama has responded -- quite predictably -- by letting Congress do the dirty work.

That means despite the celebrity-obsessed media's focus on every mundane detail of Obama's daily life, many of these fights will be determined in the Congress. For instance, we cannot rely on the president to either veto bad things or use the bully pulpit to pass good things. However, we can probably rely on the president not to veto genuinely progressive things (for instance, I don't think he would veto a health care bill because it included a robust public option).

The good news is that more and more of the progressive movement has figured all of this out.

More and more activists and organizations have realized that "the decider" on many domestic issues has increasingly become the Congress, and that at least in terms of legislative leadership, Obama resembles what Time magazine once called George H. W. Bush.: "The Incredible Shrinking President." The grassroots/Netroots campaign to pressure rank-and-file Members of Congress has, quite amazingly, kept the public option in the debate at a time that the insurance industry, Republicans, corporate Democrats and the White House have tried to take it off the negotiating table.

The bad news, of course, is that so much of the media still revolves around worshiping the presidency and glorifying presidents that it's more difficult these days to motivate the grassroots around pressuring the more diffuse concept of "Congress." Put another way, in today's celebrified culture, it's easier to motivate people against or behind a person than it is to motivate people against or behind an institution.

But that is the challenge. When a president looks at the biggest legislative fight in a generation and tells America it's time for him to take a "quiet period," he's making a Big Lebowskian declaration to Congress that the nation's "life is in your hands." And while I would certainly love to see Obama be more assertive for progressive causes, as I said at the beginning, his passivity could be bad, but it also could be great.

It could be bad if the country just holds out hope the White House will deliver positive results its own, when in fact, the White House is making clear it has no intention of doing that. It could be good, though, if, as I said in my In These Times article, progressive lawmakers fight the good fight and progressive institutions focus their resources on pressuring today's pliant Congress. It's a tough challenge in the celebrity mediascape -- but it is doable.

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