Blame Congress, Not Obama?

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 11:10 AM EDT

Is President Obama a huge sellout to the progressive cause, as many on the left believe? Matt Yglesias imagines a world in which that's true, but the Democratic caucuses in the House and the Senate were precisely as horrible as Obama. Such a legislature would have passed a bigger stimulus, a better healthcare bill, a card check bill, a cap-and-trade bill, and an immigration bill:

That’s a lot! And it’s what would have happened even if Barack Obama was exactly as rotten and unprogressive as the actually existing Barack Obama. All it would take to get to that world would be to make the people occupying the legislative pivot points as rotten and horrible as President Obama, a bar that left-wing critics of Obama keep assuring me is a low bar. So how come we can’t do it? It’s important for people not to let their frustrations with things Obama has done, is doing, or will do confuse them about the historical record. The overwhelming story of American politics in 2009 and 2010 was of Congress refusing to enact progressive measures that, had they passed Congress, would have been signed into law. If progressives failed during the leadup to the 111th Congress, the failure that really mattered was the failure to elect a more progressive Congress, not the failure to elect a more progressive president.

Actually, as Matt briefly alludes to earlier in his post, all of this would have become law easily if only the Senate didn't require 60 votes to pass a bill. The fact is that the left did manage to elect a Congress in which the median member was willing to pass all this legislation. They just didn't elect a Congress in which the 60th senator was willing to do it. That's a much, much, much higher bar.

On the bright side, though, if the Senate were a majoritarian body then George Bush might very well have been able to privatize Social Security in 2005. Not to mention lots of other stuff that he and Karl Rove probably didn't even bother trying for. On net, this bias toward the status quo hurts liberals more than conservatives, but it's not completely black and white.

As it happens, I think it's possible to get a little too caught up in political scienc-ey research suggesting that the president is all but powerless. It may be worth pointing out the president's limitations from time to time, since people fixate on his powers so much, but he's hardly a potted plant. Sure, Obama probably couldn't have gotten a lot more done if he'd been more aggressive, but I continue to think he could have gotten a little more done. To go much further, unfortunately, would require not just a more liberal Congress, but a stronger institutional base for the entire progressive movement. We're not really anywhere close to that at the moment.