For his first term and re-election, ideological differences dominated the debate surrounding President Obama. But while these partisan debates continue to swirl around the president, in the past year it has become clear that Obama is not only to the left of most Americans, he is completely out of his depth as President. In short, his lack of plain, managerial competency, and that of his administration, has manifested itself with a vengeance.
His recent interview with The Economist brings into stark relief Obama’s fundamental lack of understanding of the art of governing and how America’s federal system operates. In this interview, Obama expounds on his frustration that business keeps lobbying for special treatment. Is he serious? Can he really be that obtuse?
It is a mind-boggling comment. Everyone lobbies for special favors in Washington — it’s the town’s main industry. Business, labor, environmentalists, cities, states — you name the interest and I can guarantee they have their hand out.
This problem is an old as the republic. The very first appropriations bill in American history contained provisions for special interests. And from there, it was off to the races. The existence of special interest lobbying is predicated on three things: 1) Federal activity; 2) The willingness to grant special favors; and 3) The future potential of special favors. Put bluntly, the equation is: Active Government + Favor Factory + Uncertainty = Lots of Lobbying.
And Obama is the prime mover in making this problem worse. No president since Johnson has been a more forceful and dedicated advocate of activist government. Obama gives out special favors, exemptions and federal dollars left and right (but mostly left). In addition, the endless wrangling over federal rules and Obama’s penchant for executive orders create an ever-changing regulatory landscape where today’s losers could be tomorrow’s winners. As a result, everyone has to stay in the favor game.
For some strange reason Obama appears to think that every business, industry, and trade association should just sit on the sidelines and wait for him and the super-geniuses in his administration to pass judgment, anointing winners and losers. But our democratic system doesn’t work like that. Everyone has a right to pursue their interests and engage in advocacy. That is the fundamental nature of America’s pluralist system. If you grow the government and signal that favors are available, you are going to get more lobbying. The two things are absolutely inseparable. If Obama can’t figure that out, then he is pretty stupid.
Obama’s intolerance for people who don’t agree with him is not the only problem. He also doesn’t understand the very institutional structure of the federal government. When the Founders created the executive and legislative branches, each was designed as a check on the power of the other. Further, the House was designed to be the most representative of the chambers with the Senate as a brake against the populism inherent in the House.
A critical byproduct of this construction is that the president, elected by the national vote, represents the general interest of the nation, while Congress represents more the more narrow interests of their constituencies. This construction provides power for minority interests who might otherwise not rise to the attention of the executive. The founders were as much concerned about preventing the tyranny of simple majoritarianism as they were of any other political issue.
Put more prosaically in modern terms, institutionally speaking, Congress is built to spend and advocate for special interests, and the presidency is built to stop them — that’s why the veto exists. Out of the negotiation between the two branches should arises a compromise position that provides for the common good, while protecting the interests of minority groups. It should be noted that quite often this institutional arrangement has not come to pass. For much of the middle of the 20th Century, the House was guided by a strong economy ethic where it was the Senate and the president who were more inclined to spend.
When Obama whines about the inundation of special interest demands, he is whining about one of the fundamental institutional tasks of the presidency. Pretty amazing for a man who once taught a course on constitutional law.