Magazine article The American Prospect

In Search of Arrogance

Magazine article The American Prospect

In Search of Arrogance

Article excerpt

It's starting to look like there's a pattern when a Democrat becomes president: The president's party starts with huge majorities in Congress. He puts forward an agenda, one that seems modest by progressive standards. Nonetheless, the agenda meets endless trouble, much of it from the president's own party, and he bleeds momentum and political capital.

It's the story of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and, it seems likely, of Barack Obama.

And yet, while the pattern looks identical from a distance, up close the three presidencies are actually very different. The details tell the story of a transformation in American politics and society since the 1970s, one that is still unresolved.

Carter and Clinton were both outsiders who ran against Washington, staffed their administrations with newcomers, and stumbled in trying to maneuver through the privileges, protocols, and personalities of the permanent government--which includes not just the grandees of Congress but lobbyists, executive-branch officials, and much of the media establishment. In turn, they were met with dripping contempt. As Washington Post columnist David Broder said of Clinton, quoted by journalist/hostess Sally Quinn, "He came in here and he trashed the place ... and it's not his place."

In both cases, arrogance met arrogance: a White House that didn't understand Congress, and congressional Democrats who never felt they had even a small stake in whether the president succeeded or failed. Their attitude was that they'd been there before the president, and they would be there long after. (Except that, with the elections of 1980 and 1994, many of them weren't.)

There was every reason to expect that this time it would be different. Obama may not have been master of the Senate, but he did at least know the institution, and recent accounts of the campaign have revealed that he was much more the insider's favorite than was known. He staffed his White House with congressional veterans, led by Rahm Emanuel. More important, Hill Democrats who had spent more than a decade in a state almost approaching internal exile had to appreciate that their fates and those of the president were intertwined.

Apparently they didn't. From the most powerful committee chairs to the most recently elected, congressional Democrats quibbled with and opposed Obama on health reform, climate change, financial regulation, and economic stimulus. …

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