After Obama

I share the opinion of a number of political observers that the U.S. constitution’s separation of governmental power into three separate branches is not the best available solution. U.S. power has established similar constitutional regimes in various countries around the world, such as the Philippines, but the version of liberal democracy that developed in England and France, the parliamentary system, is superior in may respects.

One significant drawback of the American system has become especially obvious in the past seven years. We elect a president, the head of the executive branch, every four years. Although there are some checks on the president’s power, the only way of removing a president from office before the end of his or her term is impeachment, a course of action that has been extremely rare in U.S. political history and that requires an extraordinary degree of legislative cohesion. Within the sphere of the president’s responsibilities (which has been expanding fairly steadily since the FDR administration, it seems), the president is essentially an elected dictator pro tem.

We have seen the results of this feature of our constitution as George W. Bush, acting on the advice of radical advocates of executive power and militarism, has taken grossly illegal and even unconstitutional actions. The administration has wiretapped American citizens without a warrant (specifically contrary to federal criminal statute), started a non-defensive war with Iraq (only the Congress has the power to declare war, though presidents since Truman have violated this constitutional stricture with impunity), and disappeared and tortured suspected terrorists, “enemy combatants,” and simple unlucky swarthy foreigners (in violation of treaty, statute, and constitutional principles). Survivors of the Nixon administration like Dick Cheney and disciples like Cheney’s attorney David Addington are no doubt celebrating as the Bush administration counts down its final months having expanded the reach of executive-branch tyranny far beyond what even the paranoid thirty-seventh president was able to accomplish.

Even when a president holds back from engaging in the volume and intensity of villainy that the Bush regime has celebrated, the executive is remarkably unaccountable to the electorate between elections. This problem isn’t quite as bad with a first-term president who must seek reëlection, but it’s acute even then. Even a first-term president only needs to live up to his campaign platform to the extent that will prevent a credible primary challenge from within his own party for the second-term election. Bill Clinton did not fulfill the fantasies of many liberals during his first term, to put it mildly, but they rallied ’round his reëlection campaign because of the grim realities of our two-party, lesser-of-two-evils system. (That’s another thing that would change under a well-constituted parliamentary scheme, by the way.)

A political scientist friend of mine assures me that presidential elections are decided not so much on the basis of the daily or weekly ups and downs of campaigning, and not on the basis of the inspiring life stories or perceived weaknesses of the candidates, but on what are known as “the fundamentals.” The fundamentals are basically three, he says: self-reported party identification, the state of the economy (good favors the incumbent party, bad the challenger), and the approval rating of the incumbent president. All three measures this year are strongly in favor of the Democratic candidate. And I find people like Matt Yglesias credible when they argue that Obama has essentially had the nomination wrapped up since March — if you have any doubt of that, reference Clinton’s monstrous gaffe of last Friday as an indicator of the state of her desperation. There are many months to go before November and many contingencies that could arise, but I’m fairly confident in predicting that Barack Obama is the next President of the United States.

What will an Obama presidency bring? The three issues I see as most important within the domain of normal politics are (1) ending the Iraq War by withdrawing all American troops, (2) extending health coverage to all Americans, eventually through some sort of single-payer health system, and (3) creating an effective, binding, and truly global framework for rapidly reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to at least 350 parts per million (we’re currently at 385 ppm and rising fast).

On the war, Obama has promised to bring the troops home at the rate of one “combat brigade” per month until they’re (nearly) all gone within the space of about 16 months. I hope he pulls this off, but there are sizable constituencies, even within the Democratic party, who don’t want it to happen. Michael Crowley wrote in The New Republic that Obama does seem committed to his promise of a troop withdrawal but that he doesn’t have a detailed plan for ending the war and that his advisors are all over the place on the issue.

Another feature of the American constitutional separation of powers is that the two houses of the legislature, both necessary for passing laws, are not necessarily controlled by the president’s party, and even if they are, legislative majorities have different power bases and different political imperatives than the executive. This makes it difficult for a president, even with a large popular “mandate,” to pass major proposals into law. Political deadlock is not a function of increased partisanship but a matter of constitutional design.

Regarding health care, Obama’s health plan has been correctly criticized, as far as I can tell, compared to Clinton’s and Edwards’s stronger proposals, but it’s still a positive step in the direction of universal coverage. Unfortunately, here we run up against the deadlock problem. Health insurance companies, the cinereous vultures of our neoliberal world, and other interested and powerful parties have a significant hold on Congress through generous campaign contributions. Already, Democrats in Congress have warned that Obama’s health care reform plan is too ambitious and has basically no chance of passing.

As for effective carbon control, negotiations are underway under the auspices of the United Nations to create an international framework. Since the actions of all nations affect atmospheric carbon dioxide and since climate change is a truly global problem, the only conceivable way of solving the problem is in coöperation with other countries. Obama promises to “re-engage with the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change” and take additional steps to reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. This is a welcome change from the Bush administration’s criminal negligence. But reducing carbon emissions will be an economically painful and unpopular process, and Obama will need to be pushed constantly. Of equal importance, any treaty on climate change will need to be ratified by the Senate by a two-thirds supermajority. That means Big Oil only has to buy off 34 of 100 senators to prevent whatever the U.N. process comes up with from becoming binding on the United States.

In short, on the most important issues, electing Obama this November is not nearly enough. One pressing need is to elect more Democrats to Congress to provide safer majorities and easier supermajorities for progressive legislation. (Most bills require 60 votes in the Senate, not 51, and in both houses conservative or “blue dog” Democrats frequently vote with the Republicans.) But even after the election, it will take concerted citizen activism counter the destructive pressures of corporate capitalism and militarism that are pushing America and the world toward barbarism and, perhaps, ecological disaster.

Presidential elections are so exciting, so theatrical, in the United States that we tend to think they mean more than they actually do. In reality, our work isn’t done when we elect the lesser of two evils. Obama will not be enough. What else will we need to do? What else should we be planning to do?

15 responses to “After Obama”

  1. Nice post. I think you accidentally deleted some text from your third paragraph, after “the” and before “George W. Bush”. I agree that electing Obama will not be a panacea; but man it will feel good. (Fingers crossed.)

  2. Dave says:

    Just an extra article. Thanks.

  3. Marleyfan says:

    There are alot of great points in here. What we really need is the common citizens to get involved in the change process, but will that really happen? We need the citizens (me included) to make a stand, and approach our legislators. When I met with a Washington state congressman last year, he told me that the power of the people who write, call, is very underestimated. In Washington (state), there is a people’s initiative process where the citizens can make laws based on gathering a defined number of signatures, which then goes to a vote. Is there a similiar process available in all states? If the people could do this on the national level, it could have major influence on the country. The problem with the initiative process is that a minority can have more power than the silent majority.

  4. a minority can have more power than the silent majority

    See, that’s exactly what I said in 1968 — but did you guys listen to me? No way! Well you won’t have Richard M. Nixon to kick around anymore.

  5. Scotty says:

    …that are pushing America and the world toward barbarism and, perhaps, ecological disaster.

    Maybe barbarism would suck, but barberism wouldn’t be so bad.

    Yes, the two party system is broken, but what’s the only poli sci law? That a winner take all system always leads to a two party system. This is why your other point — that a parliamentary system would be much better — is true. Will this ever happen? I’m in a good mood so I don’t want to type in the answer, but it starts with “n” and ends in “o.”

    Very much enjoyed the post!

  6. rm says:

    Dave, as usual you raise some great points but I question linking the parliamentary system argument with an Obama win. I think we do him and ourselves a disservice by taking his election as a given. You rightly point out that it will take more than his victory to fix much that is wrong but I feel much more confident about a significant increase in the current Democratic majorities than I do about the Presidential election.

  7. Dave says:

    I brought up the parliamentary stuff just to point out some of the ways in which merely electing a president doesn’t solve political problems, and how easy it is for a president to become a political problem himself. A full argument for drafting a new, parliamentary constitution would bore everyone here to tears. (See Sandy Levinson, who blogs at balkinization, for as much detail as you could want.)

    It’s clear that the Democrats should increase their majorities in both houses. It would be spectacular, though it’s pretty unlikely, if they could get 60 in the Senate, a filibuster-proof majority. Of course, the latest poll shows Mitch McConnell behind in his race in Kentucky, which is astonishing. When the incumbent is behind this early in a race, anything could happen.

  8. Dave says:

    One thing that was in the back of my mind when I was writing this but didn’t make it into the post was this narrative about how Obama’s candidacy is bringing people into politics who haven’t participated in the process before. Our Demosthenes is one of these young people, I understand, and of course Brooke and the Honeycups/Fawcett clan have been volunteering. And certainly the huge base of small donors — how many is it, a million? more? — is also an indicator of grassroots excitement.

    So accepting the Obama grassroots mobilization phenomenon as real, it would be a true shame if all these millions of enthusiastic people were to accomplish was to elect one guy president. That isn’t enough. Now if some sizable fraction of these people were to get involved in politics beyond the presidential campaign — calling their representatives about important votes, joining a local group to work on a pressing issue, organizing a gathering of activists — that would start to change things.

  9. Robert says:

    Nice post, and classic Dave material. But those umlauts on words like cooperation and reelection are freaking me out, man. Please tell me those haven’t come back into fashion again.

  10. Those are no umlauts — those are diareses!

  11. Sorry, forgot to change my handle back.

  12. Robert says:

    Oh right. sorry. Diareses. Hope they’re not coming back into fashion again. Not least of all because then I’d have more stuff to remember (including the name of the mark) every time I edit a text.

  13. Dave says:

    It’s just that “reelection” looked weird without the diaresis, and then I had to follow through on “cooperation.”

  14. brooke says:

    Great post Dave. I appreciate the reminder that getting a “good” candidate elected is only the beginning. I hope that I can maintain a reasonable level of involvement in public service projects going forward. I’m optimistic on this front. I think working on the Obama campaign gave me a new appreciation for the value of volunteering for positive causes.

    It’s interesting that you would tie an Obama administration to the idea of a parliamentary democratic system, as one of the central themes in his political narrative is a profound appreciation for the genius of our system of governance. I share his awe in this regard, and I think the challenge is not to change our system of governance, but to take advantage of it.

  15. farrell says:

    “but I’m fairly confident in predicting that Barack Obama is the next President of the United States.”
    Jesus Christ, knock some wood please, you lunatic. And please more of the above. I really like informed thoughts about how to radically improve the current political system.