Visionary incrementalism and the D.C. power structure

VISIONARY INCREMENTALISM AND THE D.C. POWER STRUCTURE…. The institutional power structures that exist in D.C. are not new. On the contrary, they’ve evolved slowly over decades, and put up overwhelming resistance when challenged.

With that in mind, the NYT‘s Adam Nagourney has an interesting piece, noting an underlying point of contention between the Obama White House and the progressive base. On the one hand, the president is pursuing his agenda by playing by the establishment’s rules, navigating his way through the existing power structure to achieve his policy goals. On the other, liberals want the president to re-write the establishment’s rules and raze the existing power structure.

As much as Mr. Obama presented himself as an outsider during his campaign, a lesson of this [health care reform] battle is that this is a president who would rather work within the system than seek to upend it. He is not the ideologue ready to stage a symbolic fight that could end in defeat; he is a former senator comfortable in dealing with the arcane rules of the Senate and prepared to accept compromise in search of a larger goal. For the most part, Democrats on Capitol Hill have stuck with him.

By contrast, [Howard] Dean, the former Democratic Party chairman who has long had strained relations with this administration, said the White House was slow to fight and quick to make concessions — particularly on creating a public insurance plan — and demanded that Democrats kill the Senate version of the health care bill.

That sentiment was echoed by liberal efforts that grew up around the Dean campaign, notably Daily Kos and MoveOn.org, which argued that Mr. Obama was not tough enough in staring down foes, be they insurance companies or Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut.

“He ran as someone who would fight against entrenched special interests on behalf of the little guy,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has emerged as one of Mr. Obama’s leading critics in recent days. “And what we learned in this debate is that he’s not willing to fight and exert pressure on entrenched special interests when it comes to big ideas.”

Now, I suspect the White House would disagree. The president butted heads with an entrenched special interest on health care (insurance companies), a different entrenched special interest on military procurement reform (powerful contractors), a different entrenched special interest on FDA regulation of tobacco products (Big Tobacco), and a different entrenched special interest on reforming student loan policies (private lenders).

But the larger point is nevertheless true — Obama has not changed the political structure, he’s working within it. Accusations about “politics as usual” are not unfounded — the agenda and direction of the country changed considerably on Inauguration Day, but the rules of the game haven’t. President Obama’s m.o., for the most part, seems to be built around choosing the issue, getting the best deal he thinks he can get, and then moving onto the next issue. The focus places an emphasis on problem solving, while leaving traditional power structures in place.

At least for now, that is.

President Obama has unique gifts, but overturning the D.C. political establishment in 11 months probably isn’t a reasonable expectation. If/when health care reform becomes law, it will change, at a rather fundamental level, the relationship between the government and the populace, which may in turn create opportunities for re-writing the rules of the game. It’s the kind of thing that will take time … and a genuine, determined commitment. Time will tell.

I do, however, have a related question, especially for historians in the audience. When FDR got Social Security through Congress, the benefits were negligible, and the program excluded agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, railroad employees, government employees, clergy, and those who worked for non-profits. The original Social Security bill offered no benefits for dependents or survivors, and included no cost-of-living increases. Women and minorities were, for lack of a better word, screwed.

All of these dramatic flaws were the result of compromises Roosevelt felt like he had to make — some with uncooperative members of Congress, some with the institutional powers of the day — in order to achieve his goal.

I’m wondering, however, whether FDR was decried at the time by liberals as a sell-out unwilling to fight for a stronger Social Security bill against entrenched special interests. Were there progressive activists at the time who denounced Social Security as inadequate? Were there liberal lawmakers who voted with Republicans to kill it because it didn’t go far enough? Was there widespread talk that Democrats would suffer in the 1936 midterms because liberals were unsatisfied the compromises FDR accepted?

This isn’t intended as a snarky question; I’m genuinely curious and looking for write-ups on the political history of the mid-30s.