In the July issue of Harper’s, Kevin Baker compares Barack Obama to Herbert Hoover, a “very good man … moving prudently, carefully, reasonably toward disaster.” In other words, while top Republicans and their backers blast the President for being too radical, Baker blasts Obama for not being radical enough.
Yesterday, Chris Bowers voiced a similar frustration. While he focused much of his rant on moderate Democrats in Congress, the “Obama administration” did not escape his ire.
Even David Brooks — a conservative despite moderate instincts — seems to believe there is cause for concern in Obama extending too much deference to the leveling effect of Congressional diversity:
… we have to distinguish between two types of pragmatism. There is legislative pragmatism — writing bills that can pass. Then there is policy pragmatism — creating programs that work. These two pragmatisms are in tension, and in their current frame of mind, Democrats often put the former before the latter.
Certainly, if our elected officials’ primary goal is to pass laws so they can say they passed laws, we have a problem. But I’m not yet convinced that’s the case; at least, not for all or even a majority of the members of Congress. Granted, members of Congress are no consortium of saints, but I extend them the benefit of the doubt that most are trying to do the right thing, that most are trying to achieve the right balance on legislation, rather than merely checking an empty “victory box” so they can go home.
I’ll also acknowledge that I don’t have a fully baked counterargument to Brooks’, Bowers’, and Baker’s concerns — at least, not one that I have time to write today. What I do have is abiding faith in three principles: First, that (generally speaking) the less “revolutionary” our government is in the changes it attempts to foist upon us, i.e., the more incremental it is, the better off we’ll be. Second, that Congress is ideally (and productively) inclined to incremental rather than sweeping change. And third, that — of the three branches of government — Congress should be considered first among equals, because Congress is the most representative branch, the most democratic, the closest thing we have (despite its flaws) to government by the people. Obama seems to get this, as Brooks acknowledges:
The great paradox of the age is that Barack Obama, the most riveting of recent presidents, is leading us into an era of Congressional dominance.
Brooks goes on to write that this development should be worrisome because Congress is “a haven for special interest pleading and venal logrolling.” Perhaps, although Mickey Edwards has convincingly argued that, even with its shortcomings, a dominant Congress is preferable to a dominant Court or President; that a dominant Congress is consistent with our founding fathers’ intent to systematically avoid the concentration of governing power in too few hands, hence the founders’ treatment of Congress not in the last but in the first article of the Constitution.
For these reasons, I applaud Obama’s prudence and Congressional deference; dare I say, his conservatism?
Meanwhile, the President’s critics — Brooks, Bowers, Baker, and many others — prompt me to remember my late father’s recollection of his visit, years ago, to the Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. What Dad remembered most about that journey was the “Whispering Gallery,” where one detached voice, in reference to Lincoln, would (literally) whisper something to the effect of “He’s going too far,” followed by another that would counter “He’s not going far enough.”
Obama may or may not be a Lincoln. But I’ll give him good odds of achieving such distinction, if he continues to conduct his administration with restraint and deference and thereby consistently disappoints both the left and the right.