The Corner

‘Don’t Blame Obama’

I liked Ross’s op-ed in the Times today, but I think he overstates his case. After running through the usual critiques of Obama, he writes:

Some of this is true — but some of it is overstated. And at its worst, it’s an example of the bipartisan derangement that Gene Healy of the Cato Institute has dubbed “the cult of the presidency.”

To the disciples of this cult, the president is the government. “He is a soul nourisher,” Healy writes, “a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns and spiritual malaise.” Anything that happens on his watch happens because of him. And just as important, anything that doesn’t happen can be pinned entirely on his mistakes.

President Obama has been turning these quasi-messianic expectations to his advantage since he first entered national politics. But that doesn’t make them any less unrealistic.

To listen to the chatter about where his administration has gone wrong, you would think that the rest of the Democratic Party had no agency — that Democratic office-holders are slaves to poll numbers that only the White House can control, and that the way a Max Baucus, a Ben Nelson or a Blanche Lincoln votes is entirely determined by whether the president of the United States twists the right arms and hits the right rhetorical notes.

In reality, the health care wrestling match is less a test of Mr. Obama’s political genius than it is a test of the Democratic Party’s ability to govern. This is not the Reagan era, when power in Washington was divided, and every important vote required the president to leverage his popularity to build trans-party coalitions. Fox News and Sarah Palin have soapboxes, but they don’t have veto power. Mr. Obama could be a cipher, a nonentity, a Millard Fillmore or a Franklin Pierce, and his party would still have the power to pass sweeping legislation without a single Republican vote.

I generally agree with Healy’s take on the cult of the presidency and I agree that the party deserves its fair share of blame. But surely in this context Obama is the “decider,” as Bush liked to say. He (with the guidance of Rahm Emanuel and Tom Daschle) chose a specific game plan. His political capital with his own party was a dragon’s treasure and he hoarded it when he should have spent it, and when he spent it, he spent it poorly. The buck stops with Obama, after all.

Regardless, the high priests of the cult of the presidency are presidential historians, and if Obama fails on health care he will get the blame for it, fairly or otherwise. That’s how it works.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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