Obama’s Power Problem

THE OBAMA WAY: Republicans may enjoy calling the president a typical Chicago politician. But Rick Perlstein argues that Obama isn’t Chicago enough—and that’s why he faces such a tough contest on November 6.

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This couldn’t be further from the way that Barack Obama does business. As part of his first stimulus bill, for example, President Obama passed a massive tax cut, too, amounting to an average of $400 for 95 percent of taxpayers in the work force. But he didn’t do it the way that Bush—or a Chicago machine pol—would have. Instead, Obama’s gift came dribbled out over the course of a year in practically invisible adjustments to citizens’ paychecks. The result: People still talk about the “Bush tax cuts,” but a 2010 CBS/New York Times poll found that only 12 percent of voters believed that their taxes had gone down under Obama. By a ratio of 2 to 1, respondents actually thought their taxes had gone up.

That sure ain’t the Chicago way.

Further consider Obama’s signature accomplishment: health care reform. Its key provisions do not go into effect until 2014, two years after this month’s presidential election—a decision that seems calculated not to seed voter gratitude. Obama has even refused to put resources in voters’ hands when the money has already been appropriated. For example, only $3 billion of the $75 billion earmarked for the foreclosure-fighting Home Affordable Modification Program has been spent. (The reason, according to Neil Barofsky, the former inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, under whose auspices HAMP was run: The intention was not to deliver a service to voters but to “foam the runway” for crashing banks, helping them absorb housing-related investment losses.)

Obama hasn’t been much of a builder, either—or much of a salesman for what he has built. Rather than ramping up big public works projects à la Daley or Roosevelt—which could have helped millions of people find jobs—he complained of a dearth of “shovel-ready” projects to fund. He actually ratcheted down the public works component of the stimulus, against the advice of a faction of White House economists who argued that much higher spending was required to get the economy back on track.

In contrast to the Republican record, Obama has been more reluctant to expand government. In the first three and a half years of George W. Bush’s presidency, public sector employment at all levels grew by 800,000 jobs, but in the Obama years the public sector has lost about 600,000 jobs—in part because he limited federal aid to states and municipalities in the stimulus. (In fact growth in government spending under Obama has been less than under any president since Dwight D. Eisenhower—including even Ronald Reagan.)

Meanwhile, Bush also used his direct power to increase federal political appointees by 12.5 percent, and also politicized previously ideologically neutral jobs like United States attorneys—in the Chicago way, you could say. Obama, on the other hand, has been notably reticent to use his power of appointment to put his political stamp on the government bureaucracy.

Obama seems to think that if he shows himself to be a trustworthy steward of the public purse, Republicans will respect him and the voting public will be grateful. It hasn’t worked. An April poll by The Washington Post and ABC News found that 54 percent of voters believed that Romney would deal better with the budget deficit, compared with 37 percent who thought Obama would. As for the notion of earning Republicans’ respect: What would Daley say about that?

Absurdly, certain Republicans like to quote the classic movie line about the “Chicago way” from The Untouchables when referring to the Obama White House: “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun; he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” It refers to the uniquely cutthroat way that Chicagoans allegedly deal with the opposition. A more accurate description of the Chicago way was uttered by the man who invented the Democratic machine, Anton Cermak. “I want your cooperation,” the mayor told his aldermen, “and if I cannot have it, I will go ahead anyway.”

That’s definitely not President Obama’s management modus operandi. Granted, Congress is not the City Council. For one thing, it has members of both political parties. For another, a modern president’s ability to cut off legislators’ access to services their constituents need is severely limited.

But even when Obama had majorities in both the House and the Senate, he rarely behaved like a political boss. The best example was the way he launched his health care proposal. Instead of presenting a legislative package as a fait accompli for the bodies to vote on—as Mayor Emanuel did with his budget and infrastructure bank—he initially farmed out the drafting of the proposal to a bipartisan “Gang of Six.” He thought he could achieve more with cooperation. He did so even though the Senate’s minority leader, Mitch McConnell, had openly proclaimed, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

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Photograph: Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

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