Party politics has come to America. Americans don’t like it, but they can’t help indulging in it. President Obama’s "post-partisan" centrist rhetoric about healing and uniting America appealed to undecided independent voters during the 2008 election, but was always going to be incompatible with the truly energising and reformist message of "Change".
The inability to push reform in a bipartisan way is not due to Obama being "reluctant to fight" or a lack of conviction. Rather, he is constrained by a political system purposefully designed by its founders to prevent the implementation of any program whatsoever. The American system is essentially a conservative one in that legislative change is subject to many checks and balances that were conceived before modern mass parties and their politics, and before citizens expected much from their government. Legislation has to not only pass the Senate and House of Representatives, but attain 60 out of 99 votes in the Senate to avoid being "filibustered" or indefinitely delayed through procedure. The picture is further complicated by the legendary "independence" of US senators which means that the president cannot even count on the votes of his own party. To Australians used to a far more partisan parliament this may increase the miscomprehension, and even confuse many Americans who only recently voted for "change" in a landslide election.
The Left may well wonder at the seeming inability so far of its representatives to achieve substantial reform, given the alacrity with which George W Bush destroyed nations. The Right’s agenda however, built as it is upon suspicion of government and veneration for laissez-faire markets, is an easier fit to the political institutions of the United States, with their emphasis on limiting rather than enabling state activity. Building nations, as opposed to destroying them, takes not just competence and will, but political power. This is where the symbolism and mythology of the American presidency is out of kilter with its reality.
American presidents have often used their foreign affairs powers to project a domestic power-prestige that is actually beyond that of the office’s capabilities. George W Bush’s early presidency exemplified this. Now, these increasingly disempowering foreign entanglements have been inherited by President Obama, and work only to dampen his domestic prestige. As such, short of giving himself overseas victories he cannot afford, the President does not have the option of using military campaigns to gain the kind of support that intimidates Congress.
Despite his background, Obama is a domestic rather than international politician. Domestically, his options to achieve reform are to either use the party system or to transcend it. Attempting to transcendend the system is the first stop for two main reasons. Firstly, transcendence is the discourse upon which Obama’s ascendency is based, so it is in rhetorical terms at least a natural fit. Secondly, and more strategically, Obama’s election message requires he first attempt and exhaust bipartisanship before moving to the next and ultimately irresistible stage of all-out partisan warfare. His problem right now is that Republicans have a head start, having abandoned bipartisan rhetoric long ago.
For all the talk of bipartisanship, the fact remains that party politics of the kind familiar to Australians is here to stay. Obama’s transcendental rhetoric goes against the grain of political history in America and against the overwhelming sentiment among the activists of both parties — hence the restless dissatisfaction among the Left and the scorn among the Right with this stage of Obama’s presidency.
In Australia we have an Opposition that opposes the Government for the sake of it, and the Government and voters accept this to a large degree. Australian parliamentary institutions of responsible government make stable majoritarian government possible, with a minimum of checks and balances that are all but neutralised by party discipline and a two-party system. Americans on the other hand like to imagine a president who unites the country and a Congress which unites behind the president. There was not a little hankering after this imagined past behind the transcendental rhetoric of the Obama campaign, especially on the heels of the divisive Bush presidency.
The rhetorical victory for transcendentalism however was just that. The Republican Party is proving united in its opposition to the Obama presidency. It is now even organising protests that ape the protest politics of the Left during the Bush presidency. Yet Democrats on the other hand have not been so united, and it may be that they need the stubborn example of the Republicans as proof that they must compete on more disciplined party lines or face irrelevancy as a party of government.
Obama’s reforms, such as in healthcare, are largely modest in policy terms. The problem this creates is that Obama is yet to convince his party activists that they are worth selling, while Republicans are easily convinced that they are worth fighting.
On the other hand, Obama enjoys far more authority than his opponents in Congress. He is more popular, more recognisable, and utlimately better able to frame and set the agenda. Once bipartisanship is exhausted and the partisan battle is joined in earnest, Obama’s other advantages in campaign organisation, demographic appeal and fundraising capacity may yet make the recent Republican resurgence look like an aberration rather than a trend.
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