11.02.09

If Only Obama's Performance Mattered More

The last year has taught a hard lesson about the power of a determined minority to keep the majority in check. Forty senators representing about 9 percent of Americans can filibuster Obama’s initiatives—and the media declares him a failure.

As each month goes by since the Obama victory, I become more and more impressed at the structural impediments in the way of achieving the kind of progressive agenda it would take to right our ship of state. The Constitution, and the exceptionally perverse rules of the Senate, empower a small but determined right-wing minority to exercise veto power over the plain will of the majority. I recently saw data demonstrating that in both Mississippi and Alabama, less than 10 percent of white men voted for Obama. That’s a “small but determined right-wing minority.” And it haunts my dreams. And, sometimes, it simply keeps me awake at night.

With too few exceptions, Obama very much not among them, the Democrats have shown neither the willingness nor the ability to foment populist politics from the left.

Things are dire economically in this country. It’s very hard to imagine anything over the horizon—like the tech boom that built our economic growth in the 1990s—that can keep things from getting worse. Obama’s job is to try to stimulate consumption by increasing spending; that’s simply how the laws of economic gravity work. But the Republicans—and, as we’ve seen in the congressional race in New York’s 23rd District, the forces to the right of the Republican Party who threaten to effectively replace it—will try to make that impossible. The determined minority may succeed. They have a vested interest in doing so—in seeing him fail. That sets in motion a vicious cycle. The taxpayer giveaway to ruinously unethical banking interests, whose behavior only gets worse as they learn their irresponsibility will be rewarded, will fuel more populist rage.

More Daily Beast contributors on Obama’s election anniversaryWith too few exceptions, Obama very much not among them, the Democrats have shown neither the willingness nor the ability to foment populist politics from the left. The right comes to own a monopoly on an emotion in ever more plentiful supply: anger. They have, of course, no solutions. But when it only takes 40 senators to filibuster—and “filibuster” means merely signing a petition—legislators representing only the 20 least populated states in the union, and about 9 percent of American citizens, can at the very least stop Obama from claiming credit for solutions. And then the mainstream media—tada!—reports that Obama’s a failure. How’s his performance been? I just wish that question mattered more. On the big questions, it’s almost moot. Though fortunately the government has been and will be far, far better administered in the meantime.

Rick Perlstein is the author, most recently, of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of American.