Why Obama Couldn’t
With time running out on his administration, President Obama has embarked on a sort of “apology tour” to disillusioned supporters. They are frustrated that he hasn’t delivered on many of their favored policies, from gun control to single-payer health care to carbon controls. With candidates queuing up to replace him—many with very different policy goals than his—he apparently feels the need to rally the disaffected behind a successor who would carry on his agenda.
His message to the disheartened supporters is simple: the political failures aren’t his fault. He’s tried hard to deliver, but “Congress doesn’t work” and American government “is broken.” According to Obama:
As mightily as I have struggled against that, … it still is broken. … When I ran in 2008, I, in fact, did not say I would fix it; I said we could fix it. I didn’t say, ‘Yes, I can’; I said—what? … ‘Yes, we can.’”
Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza, writing about the apology tour, throws some shade at the President, claiming that he did in fact promise to change policy. But ultimately Cillizza agrees with Obama, writing that the American “political system is … more broken than any one person—no matter who that person is or the circumstances that surround that person’s election—could hope to solve.”
But both the president and Cillizza are completely wrong; the American political system assuredly is not broken. The system was designed—and we should all be very grateful that it was designed—to not allow the radical change that Obama’s supporters—or supporters of other politicians across the political spectrum—want. It is the rare times when such change does occur—think Franklin Roosevelt’s expansion of national government or George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism initiatives and war in Iraq—that American governance had failed and very bad things happen.
Today the United States is a nation of more than 320 million remarkably different people, living in unique situations, having highly individual concerns, desires, and risk preferences, and holding a wide variety of mostly noble values. They each operate in a world of uncertainty and limited resources. Given those dramatically varied circumstances, any national policymaking is likely to harm and anger tens of millions of people.
For that reason, the Framers (who likewise lived in an incredibly diverse nation for their era) designed American government to elevate private action and decentralize governance while limiting national policy to matters of broad consensus and compromise. Because few of the policy goals advocated by President Obama and his “progressive” supporters have such support or allow for serious compromise (even the signature item that he did manage to enact), it shouldn’t be surprising that few of those goals have been achieved. That doesn’t mean American government is broken—quite the opposite!—but rather that Obama’s conception of governance is.
Perhaps the next president will better appreciate the genius of American government’s design and work within that design for policy change that he or she believes is important. But it’s clear from President Obama’s comments that he is not up to that task. For the reason, we should all be very grateful that, no, he couldn’t.