Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | April 28, 2011

What Could Obama Have Done?

Well, I’m glad you asked.

Many progressives believe Obama has been a very good president who has done the best he could despite being hamstrung by Republicans in the Senate. The crux of this argument is that Obama could not pass any more progressive legislation than he did because he did not have any way to block Senate Republicans from filibustering it. What was he supposed to do, these people ask, force the bills through at gunpoint? What could Obama have done?

I respect this viewpoint, but I think Obama could have done a lot. And in this diary, I’ll explain how — how Obama muffed the best chance in a generation to put America back on a progressive path because he wasn’t willing to play political hardball with members of his own party. Fair warning: in doing so, I’ll be explaining why I am extremely angry at and disappointed in Obama. Readers should know, however, that I will vote for him in November 2012. I recognize that no better option is likely to emerge. In fact, that is why I am so angry at Obama; because in muffing this chance for a progressive America, he ensured that it will not come again for a long time, if ever.

Admittedly, all this is water under the bridge now. But I think it is worthwhile to analyze it anyway, because 2009-2010 will be looked at as the critical political turning point of these years, the moment when American politics “failed to turn.” The next time Democrats get a chance like this, I want to know exactly what happened over the past two years, exactly what went wrong. What could Obama have done?

The first thing Obama should have done was to recognize that the battle over the filibuster — the battle he never even bothered to engage — was the most important battle for progressive Democrats in decades. Ending the filibuster was the difference between a second New Deal and the conservative path we are on today. It was everything. And Obama could have done it, or at least he could have tried.

How? Many progressives say that the filibuster couldn’t have been ended mid-session without the motion to end it being filibustered itself. Not true; Ezra Klein lays out two scenarios by which it could have been ended using a simple majority vote. One of those scenarios had the support of several U.S. Senators, including Tom Udall.

But, continue these progressives, Harry Reid was unwilling to end the filibuster, and Obama didn’t have any way to make him do so. Wrong again. Presidents have a variety of ways of dealing with recalcitrant Majority Leaders. Obama could have:

  • Used a trumped-up gaffe to convince Democratic Senators to oust Reid in favor of a more pliable Democrat. George W. Bush did this successfully to Trent Lott in 2003, replacing him with Bill Frist. This maneuver would have required the support of only half the Democratic caucus, which was well within Obama’s reach.
  • Used Reid’s upcoming re-election bid as a bargaining chip, threatening to oppose Reid for re-election unless Reid agreed to end the filibuster mid-session. Had Reid still refused, Obama could have made good on his threat by recruiting Dean Heller and campaigning for him.
  • Campaigned against the conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln who were telling Reid not to end the filibuster. FDR did something like this in 1934, campaigning for progressive Republicans over anti-New Deal Democrats, and it won him a few seats for his electoral coalition.

Maybe none of these tactics would have worked; certainly I can imagine a scenario where they could all have failed. Maybe Obama’s presidency would have gone down in flames if he had tried them. But would the electoral outcome in 2010 have been worse for Democrats than it was when Obama didn’t even bother attacking the filibuster? I fail to see how it could have been, given our catastrophic losses in November. I would rather have seen Obama go down fighting for his policies than simply capitulate to those in his own party who refused to actually pass legislation by majority vote.

What would ending the filibuster have meant? As I mentioned earlier, it would have meant everything. Legislatively speaking, here is a list of the bills proposed during 2007-2008 that already had majority support, but were waiting for 60 Democratic votes. Among those bills were:

  • The Employee Free Choice Act, the most important pro-union legislation in a generation.
  • Voting rights for the District of Columbia, ending taxation without representation.
  • Medicare prescription drug negotiations, to lower the price of prescription drugs for seniors.
  • Verified voting.
  • Restoring habeas corpus to Gitmo defendants.
  • Increased investment in renewable energy.

Additionally, here are some other things Obama would have been able to do with a filibuster-free Senate. He could have:

  • Passed a public option in the health care bill. Made the bill take effect before the 2010 election.
  • Passed two full stimulus bills, a first bill at $300 billion higher than the bill that actually passed, a second bill at several hundred billion more.
  • Passed comprehensive immigration reform.
  • Passed cap-and-trade to begin slowing down climate change.
  • Passed a financial regulation bill that was more like Glass-Steagall than the comparatively weak bill we actually got.
  • Passed the Dream Act.
  • Repealed the Bush tax cuts to make America fiscally solvent again.

At the risk of repeating myself, getting these laws passed was worth starting a massive fight over the filibuster. It was worth giving up any semblance of bipartisanship, and even turning against members of Obama’s own party who refused to go along. It was worth potentially losing reelection, and it was definitely worth losing the House, since Obama lost that anyway by doing nothing about the filibuster.

Even if he had not succeeded in repealing the filibuster, there are still additional things Obama could have done even without 60 votes in the Senate. He could have:

  • Made better cabinet appointments, particularly at Treasury (anyone but Geithner) and Interior (Grijalva instead of Salazar). Appointed more progressives, and fewer Republicans (Gates, Jones, LaHood — though I don’t really mind LaHood — and the attempt at Gregg) to cabinet positions overall.
  • Defended his cabinet picks against right-wing attacks. Pushed through the nomination of Dawn Johnsen after Specter changed his mind and 60 votes were available. Refrained from firing Van Jones over spurious right-wing attacks.
  • Appointed Diane Wood, rather than Elena Kagan, to the Supreme Court.
  • Ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell by executive order on the first day of his presidency, and offered honorable discharge and/or reinstatement to all those dishonorably discharged under the policy.
  • Ended executive branch enforcement/defense of DOMA on the first day of his presidency. Eric Holder did this, but two years too late.
  • Signed the Kyoto Protocol (though it wouldn’t have become law in the US without a 2/3 vote of the Senate, which was impossible).
  • Ended the prosecution of Gitmo defendants, possibly pardoning some of them. (Obama did not have even majority Senate support for trying them in the United States.)
  • Pardoned Bradley Manning.
  • Instituted Justice Department investigations into Bush Administration crimes.

In terms of national policy, this is a marginally less substantial list. But it still matters. I didn’t expect Obama to do all of these things, or even most of them. I recognize that many of them (Gitmo, for instance) carry political consequences. I am appalled that he didn’t lift a finger to accomplish any of them, even though he was not blocked by the Senate.

When people ask, “What could Obama have done?” I’m usually too angry at the President to answer. But that doesn’t do any service to my views; there are plenty of reasonable people whom I respect who think Obama couldn’t have done anything to stop the rightward drift of our government since his election. My answer to those people is, he could have made war on the filibuster and on everyone who defended it. He could have made the filibuster the defining issue of his presidency. Had he done that, and made it stick, then he could have done everything.

(Cross-posted at History for Kossacks.)

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  1. […] gotten better results by fighting the filibuster. But since we can’t know that for certain, they should have tried. And the not-trying-in-Chief title belongs to […]

  2. Obama had absolutely no intention whatsoever of doing any of the things that were suggested in this article, because he’s a closet Republican himself.

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