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The Grand Obama Project: Two constraints

January 23, 2013, at 4:20 PM

This is the first in what will I hope be an occasional series of posts about President Obama's fundamental project: Where he wants to lead the country and what he hopes the government will look like after he leaves office. His "project" encompasses more than his policies. It is better described as the deep structure of the state that the next president will inherit. Think of it as my best guess at the motivations for the president's judgments, not just on moment-to-moment decisions, but also about which decisions to make and when to make them. 

Obama, of course, cannot do whatever he wants. There are several statutory constraints. He is not a dictator. He cannot destroy the Republican Party, or completely remake the Democratic Party in his own image. He does not have the benefit of being able to see that his policies are always carried out the way he wishes them to be carried out. He is not God; he does not control the weather, natural disasters, and other events that will intrude into his mindscape. These limits are obvious; all presidents face them.

The Obama Project has two constraints that will always limit its ambition. One is the control of the House of Representatives by Republicans. Absent a significant shift in micro-political trends, Democrats will probably not be in a position to take control of the House in 2014, although they may come close. Because Republicans control the House, there are certain things that Obama wants to accomplish legislatively that instead he will try to accomplish unilaterally. We are seeing three of these issues play out today: gun control, immigration, and climate change.

That last one is the biggest. Even many House Democrats don't want to vote on a major carbon tax scheme or something equivalent to it. A Senate-passed bill may get to the House, but the Republicans who control the committees will simply not budge in any constructive way. The president probably does not have time to persuade Americans to punish Republicans for their policy indiscretions. Instead, he will alter the standards that auto-makers must build cars to, the amount of emissions allowed by coal plants, the degree of regulatory scrutiny that carbon-producing industries undertake, and the amount of money spent the government to fund basic research into carbon capture and alternative energies. 

Constraint two is that there will not be enough money to accomplish Big Things anymore. The sluggish economic growth imposes limits on the art of the possible. It encourages gridlock and partisanship because it reduces the room for compromise. There will be no new entitlements passed; the Republicans do get to dictate (to some degree) how spending restraints are put into place because there is not enough money; taxes cannot be raised significantly because the recovery is fragile enough to be pushed back into a recession. Executive branch economic interventions will therefore be limited in scope. 

The upshot is that Obama's Project is fettered. He will not waste time on policies or rhetoric that ignores the natural and artificial limits on his power. 

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