The parliamentary president?
Last year, when it became clear that the Democratic nominee would be Barack Obama — the relative political newcomer with the bipartisan, unifying rhetoric — and not Hillary Clinton — the politically polarizing figure whose battles with the American right went back almost 20 years — Republicans sought to give Obama a makeover. In ads and in stump speeches, office seekers and issue advocates equated the popular Obama with "San Francisco liberal" Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. As a matter of pure political equivalency, one might question this campaign's accuracy. But as a reflection of domestic political reality, the association may yet stick.
The reason why has everything to do with the approach to governing that Obama has shown during his first six months in office. It's a pattern that was established even before Obama's inauguration when, not long after Election Day, Pelosi took the lead in talking about the need for a stimulus bill. That in itself was not particularly surprising, given that Pelosi was at that time continuing in a position she already held (with a bigger House majority on its way), while Obama took care to show he appreciated that there could be only one president at a time, and at that time the president was George W. Bush.
What did raise some eyebrows, however, was the degree to which, after Inauguration Day, Obama let Congress shape the stimulus. There were, at the time, two not necessarily exclusive schools of thought about this. One held that while Obama recognized the need for stimulus legislation and didn't want to go against the Democratic Congress that was calling for it, such a big spending bill was not something he had campaigned on, and, with an ambitious domestic agenda ahead, he preferred to keep his fingerprints off it as much as possible. The other said that Obama, having learned the lesson of President Jimmy Carter's early presidency battle with then-Speaker Tip O'Neill over dam legislation, was inclined to let Congress have its way on this bill, so as to avoid making enemies in advance of more difficult legislation around health care and energy.
Well, now we're in the thick of the legislative process surrounding health care and climate change, and Obama — despite his highly visible push for health-care reform this week — still seems content to leave the details to Congress. As ever, it is in the details that the devil dwells.
On health care, where he faces a powerful industry lobby and a largely unified Republican opposition, and with the lessons of the Clinton White Housedictated health-care reform effort in mind, Obama may have little choice but to defer to congressional Democrats. With Rahm Emanuel, former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, as his chief of staff, one might reasonably infer that Obama's general reluctance to draw hard lines in the sand reflects a realistic understanding of where the votes are — and aren't.
But political realities aside, there seems to be a philosophy of governing at work here, one that on domestic matters relies on bottom-up pressure for reform — and uses congressional support for a given policy as the gauge of this pressure. Viewed more skeptically, one also could see this as a steadfast refusal by Obama to get ahead of public opinion — in this view, the president will act as cheerleader for his broad agenda, but will not risk cheering more loudly than the public at large.
Whatever his reasons, President Obama has so far let Congress dictate much of the fine and even large print of his domestic-policy proposals. Which leaves the American people with the question of how well today's Congress, on the left and on the right, represents the true, aggregate will of the American people.