I predicted this story a few months ago; a grudging acknowledgment that President Barack Obama’s hands-off approach on health care might have been the right one after all. It’s not that I necessarily think it’s better that Obama let Congress hash out the health care plan and then let the town hall hysteria boil and dissipate on national television. It’s just that a kind of coolness and steadiness has always been his strategy, and so far it has worked.
There’s something else at work here, too. Obama seems to appreciate Congress’s place in the process. Respecting Congress might seem a hard thing to do, but it’s what presidents once did. The mini-series on John Adams, based on the biography by David McCullough, lets Adams a little off the hook for The Alien and Sedition acts because he was merely acquiescing to Congress’s will, and they had enough votes to override a veto anyway. In fact, Jon Meacham tells us in “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” that the first six presidents rarely used their veto power, usually overriding only those acts they saw as unconstitutional.
It was Jackson, Meacham said, who used veto power for laws with which he disagreed. It became a political tool and a method for making policy. It was Jackson who first saw himself as having a popular mandate, representing the will of the people over the entrenched interests of Congress.
For many of us here, that probably seems like a good presidential philosophy as long as Obama’s in the White House. It feels like Obama is representative of the popular will, and its tempting to want him to take up the progressive mandate mantle. It’s not as though Obama’s completely against strong executive power, as we’ve argued before; he seems particularly reluctant to roll back Bush era expansions of it. But there’s something to be said for respecting the institution and the slow and steady progress it’s most inclined to make, and Obama tends to put his faith in the electoral process. American democracy can evolve in punctuated equilibrium fashion, and the South, interested from the start in establishing a different kind of America, is still fighting the rupturing battles of the 50s, 60s and 70s (even all the way back to the 30s). Change was faster then, but it came at a price. Gay rights advocates, Americans without health care and all of us breathing increasingly warm and poisoned air can point out that slow change costs us something, too. Perhaps progressives can console themselves with this; change is change, and it’s never failed to come.