Stone the crows! The West Wing was real after all! Five years back the last series of the show explained how Barack Obama would become president. Of course on TV his name was Matt Santos and he was Hispanic rather than black- there were limits to the writers’ imaginations. Otherwise they got it right.
Santos ran as a policy obsessed change agent with a national healthcare plan. He beat two Democrat insiders for the nomination (including a John Edwards-esque mad rooter) and defeated a respected Republican moderate in the general election. And he was a decent bloke, who wanted to win but knew the world would not end if he didn’t.
West Wing also ran hard on the terrible time reforming presidents always have. There was a plot line in just about every one of the 154 episodes that featured staffers for Santos’s predecessor, President Jed Bartlett’s doing whatever was required to convince recalcitrants in the legislature to vote to help widows and orphans, (in West Wing world government spending is always good). This generally involved paying for barrel plants in states that produce pork, when it was not the other way around. Except when Republican reactionaries blocked legislation out of spite, (you always knew the baddies on West Wing from the way they opposed gun control and abortion, and talked to God about the constitution).
Which is who President Santos, sorry Obama, has to put up with. Dissident Democrats in the House and the GOP minority in the Senate, which since a Republican won Ted Kennedy’s seat have the numbers to keep arguing against legislation until everybody loses interest, are blocking Obama’s agenda on everything from health care to emissions control.
And just like on West Wing the media are announcing it is almost impossible for Obama to accomplish anything. Even The Economist called US democracy “a study in paralysis” the other week – before explaining things aren’t that bad. (The Economist has a standing policy that whatever everybody else writes is wrong).
But as for the rest of the press I give it a month before the comparisons with Jimmy Carter start, as pundits predict the 44th president will follow the 39th in getting so little done in his first term that the voters see no reason to give him a second.
Nonsense. Carter was a drover’s dog of a president who only had to beat Gerard Ford. This wasn’t hard in 1976, what with the way Ford was appointed by Richard Nixon and made John McCain look a ball of fire. Carter also had a tin ear for politics, telling the voters to suck up the energy crisis and get used to colder houses and smaller cars. And the way he was humiliated by Iranians zealots on visitor visas from the middle ages did not do much for his “firm and decisive” rating in the opinion polls.
Admittedly, Obama has not got his healthcare legislation or emissions trading plan passed, and the economy is on life support. But it is still breathing and, given the way George Bush was rendered inert by incompetence and McCain clearly did not have a clue in October 2008, Obama gets the brownie points for economic management. You can bet nobody, apart from people who appear on Fox and Friends, will forgive the Republicans for the meltdown by the next election.
In any case most presidents don’t get much of their own early agenda up, which is the way the founding fathers wanted it, writing the constitution to slow presidents with big ideas. The separation of powers between legislature and executive was designed for a world where leaders were supposed to keep their whigs straight up but otherwise leave it to the hard heads in the House of Representatives. And the rules rarely change. It takes a two-thirds majority in the Senate before the majority party can get the guillotine out to push legislation through fast.
Obama probably has no idea how much power in parliament Kevin Rudd has, something you can bet the PM will correct when the president comes to visit this month.
And while Obama is in a trough, this is largely because it takes a while to work the White House out. The start of Bill Clinton’s first term was a mess and Obama still has time to do whatever the basketball equivalent of getting on the front foot is.
You can bet he will pull some multi-billion bunnies out of his baseball cap between now and the next election so he looks like he is busy. The State of the Union address in January pointed the way – a lot of the initiatives could have come from a state campaign launch here, just with more noughts attached to the spending commitments.
So don’t write old Matt, sorry Barack, off yet. Otherwise we will never know what would have happened if an eighth series of West Wing had been made.