Sunday, September 23, 2012

Change, part 2

It's probably pointless to get annoyed at a Saturday Night Live sketch--it's just a Saturday Night Live sketch, after all--but I was still annoyed at the Seth Meyers segment asking President Obama, "What Are You Doing?" Meyers made the funny, and valid, point that with all of Romney's recent mis-steps, President Obama could probably cruise to victory by saying as little as possible for the rest of the campaign. But then he jumped on the president's recent statement that change comes from outside Washington as some sort of gaffe. It would be a shame if the conventional wisdom accepted the idea that the president made a mistake by suggesting that he cannot do his job alone.

For the president to remind us that power comes from the people should be unremarkable in a democracy. What would constitute a gaffe, what would in fact be offensive to the whole American experiment, would be for the president to argue that he is solely responsible for making change. Our Constitution does not contemplate a president ruling over the people. It instead requires the president to carry out the will of the people's representatives in Congress. Ours is supposed to be a government "of the people, by the people, for the people." All President Obama was suggesting was that he needs popular pressure to make Congress act in response to the people's desires.

One would think the Romney campaign, with its disdain for the effectiveness of government as opposed to private market forces, would agree that the president has limited powers. If people are unemployed, for example, how do they expect the president to find them a job? Republicans don't even think that should be the government's responsibility. The now-dominant Tea Party movement Republicans, with their new-found enthusiasm for constitutional first principles, should also agree with President Obama's assertion that power comes from outside Washington. They want to reduce the power of the central government to a few essential functions. They should also agree that the president, indeed the whole central government, has limited powers. It seems possible, then, that if somebody other than President Obama had said it, Republicans might themselves be trumpeting the idea that power comes from outside Washington. In fact, they have made that argument when it suits their convenience, as when George W. Bush ran as a Washington outsider, or John McCain ran as a maverick.

Democrats, meaning small "d" as well as capital "D" democrats, should also applaud President Obama's recognition of the power of people to force Congress to respond to their wishes. Democrats generally support the efforts of the national government to alleviate poverty, support education, and assist the disabled and the elderly. In fact they want to strengthen those programs. Democrats should know better than to expect that that will happen without a strong movement of popular support behind the president. That is where the president's power comes from.

Romney now says: "I can change Washington -- I will change Washington. We'll get the job done from the inside -- Republicans and Democrats will come together." How exactly does Mitt Romney think he is going to accomplish that? By means of his own personal force of will or intellect? Romney can barely muster majority support within his own party. Or perhaps, if he plans to rely solely on forces "inside" Washington, Romney intends to enlist the help of lobbyists and other powerful players to pressure Congress to enact his program. Does he seriously intend to shut out all sources of power outside of Washington?  That's a scary thought if it were possible, which fortunately it's not. It's probably safer to think Romney is just taking another cheap shot at the president, without thinking through any sort of coherent theory of how the government actually works.


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