Following an electoral victory, Obama is likely to face a massive challenge: The least responsible, least respected, least popular political institution in America -- the Democratic-led Congress -- would also be the most emboldened. Democratic leaders with large majorities would be pushed by conviction and hubris, and pressured by Democratic constituencies, toward divisive measures that punish and alienate businesses, seek backward-looking political vengeance and impose cultural liberalism. This predictable story of overreach, backlash and bitterness easily could destroy Obama's presidency, even before his first achievements -- unless he can suddenly find the ability to shape, tame, even fight, the self-destructive tendencies of his own party.First, I take issue with his categorization of a Democrat-led Congress as the least popular institution in America. Yes, if you ask Americans what they think of Congress, it is pretty damn negative, down there in Bush-territory. But if you ask them how their Congressman is doing, they give high marks -- indeed, the reason we're looking at a Democrat-led Congress in an Obama administration is that most of the people there will be re-elected (and the ones that aren't are overwhelmingly Republican).
Why is it so hard for Michael Gerson, and anyone else, to believe that people are actually voting for Democrats because they believe that Democrats have good ideas for running the country? It appears that people do want the financial industry to be subject to regulation, an increase in the progressivity of the tax code, enforcement of environmental laws, action on climate change, progressive views on the Supreme Court, etc. etc. Gerson seems to be suggesting that the Democrats should reject everything they've been campaigning on and, I dunno, just try to hold the ball for as long as they can until Republicans take over again? His message is even worse for Obama -- just don't try anything, Congress will overwhelm you.
Two problems with this. First, if anything has been a problem over the past 8 years, it has been that Congress lost its spine and let the executive branch do anything it wanted. So I'm a bit dubious that, all of a sudden, Congress will be calling the shots. Second, implicit in Gerson's argument (and explicit in similar arguments made by others) is the comparison to Clinton's first term, when he too had a Democrat majority upon taking office, but promply blew it, leading to the 1994 GOP takeover. I don't think this is a terribly valid comparison though. Clinton and Obama are vastly different people in terms of temperment and leadership style. Also, many of the Democrats that lost in '94 were from places that we now recognize as not terribly Democratic -- Southern states, rural areas, etc., that were still lagging behind the North/South switch in party ID that had been occurring since Nixon. I think today's Democrat majority is much more solid, both in terms of number and ideology (I'm not saying it is monolithic or imperturbable, but simply moreso than in '94).
Anyway, Obama, when you win, I'd recommend trying to do some of the things you said you'd do...