There is a lot of talk from all sides of the political specturm about Obama’s presidency as being a failed effort–and there’s still 2 years left! Jay Cost of RCP has a very nice piece on what might explain Obama’s troubled and uninspiring presidency. The secret is in the map.
In fact, if you look at presidential elections going back 100 years, Obama’s is the most geographically narrow of any victors except Carter, Kennedy, and Truman – none of whom had transformative presidencies. Even Bill Clinton in 1996, whose share of the two-party vote was comparable to Obama’s, still had a geographically broader voting coalition. Ditto George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Voting input inevitably determines policy output, and these maps hold the key to Reich’s disappointment with the President. In our system, it’s not just the number of votes that matter, but – thanks to Roger Sherman – how they are distributed across the several states. Obama’s urban support base was sufficient for political success in the House, which passed a very liberal health care bill last November. But rural places have greater sway in the Senate – and Obama’s weakness in rural America made for a half-dozen skittish Democrats who represent strong McCain states. The evolving thinking on the left – “Obama should have used his campaign-trail magic to change the political dynamic” – is thus totally misguided. The “remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign” never persuaded the constituents of the red state Democrats he had to win over. Why should they suddenly start doing so now?
This means that the electoral college forces president’s to engage in national, not sectional, campaigns. In addition, it also tempers the president after taking office. If the president does not seek out a broad coalition after the election, it could hurt him electorally should he run for re-election.
Unlike the moderate progressives of the past–FDR & LBJ–Obama has lurched hard left to get his proposals through Congress. And he has done so without a broad bi-partisan coalition like with FDR and LBJ:
Our system of government can only produce policy when geographically broad coalitions favor it. The Senate, more than any other institution, forces such breadth. Obama created breadth the wrong way. He watered down initially liberal legislation to prompt just enough moderate Democrats to sign on. Instead, he should have built policy from the center, then worked to pick up enough votes on either side. The left would have been disappointed, but the right would have been marginalized and, most importantly, Independent voters – who have abandoned the President in droves – might still be on board.
A revolutionary idea in our polarized political climate, I know. Still: ask your average swing voter what he or she thinks of such an approach, and watch them nod in agreement.