A president with no time to waste

A PRESIDENT WITH NO TIME TO WASTE…. Love him or hate him — or occasionally maybe both — President Obama is not exactly pursuing a laidback, static agenda. Peter Beinart recently made the case that Obama has recorded more significant milestones in 18 months than the last two Democratic administrations achieved in 12 years. Rachel Maddow observed, “The last time any president did this much in office, booze was illegal. If you believe in policy, if you believe in government that addresses problems, cheers to that.”

So, why is the president in such a hurry? Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman thinks it has to do with Obama’s style and sense of history.

So far in his presidency Obama has been tackling, even seeking out, sweeping, controversial challenges: the stimulus, the auto bailout, health-care reform, a new arms-control treaty with Russia. He still wants to deal with comprehensive energy and immigration legislation this year. So, is he in [a] hurry because he figures there may be no second term?

Well, my answer is this: Obama is playing a deep, longer-range game, one that involves burnishing his identity as a “historical,” history-making figure. The president is swinging for the fences because that is what home-run hitters do. He hopes (expects) voters will reward him for the effort. Hence, his focus on the toughest topics in the broadest way. To switch sports analogies, if he were an Olympic diver, he’d always be attempting the dives with the highest degree of difficulty. If the execution isn’t perfect, he gets a higher score anyway.

Jamelle Bouie thinks there are more structural factors at play.

Yes, President Obama has sped through his agenda as quickly as he could manage, but it’s important to recognize that presidents have a very small window of opportunity for action. Presidents are at their strongest in the beginning of their terms; they have the momentum of an electoral mandate, the support of their party, and an enthusiastic staff. As time progresses, the president’s power to persuade diminishes, opposition calcifies, and intra-party tensions flare up.

It’s likely that President Obama has his eye towards history. But truth be told, all presidents have their eyes towards history.

My take is far closer to Bouie’s, and I’d emphasize two related points.

The first is that Obama has proven to be far more ambitious than recent presidents because of circumstances — Bush failed so spectacularly, Obama really didn’t have much of a choice but to craft an unusually bold agenda. The to-do list was simply too long and too important for any other course of action.

The second is that Obama no doubt realizes that presidents very rarely have congressional majorities this large. Sure, FDR and LBJ had even bigger Democratic majorities, and no president before him has ever had to get 60% of the Senate on literally every bill of consequence, but the current Democratic majorities in Congress are the largest either party has had in a generation, and they’ll very likely be the largest of Obama’s tenure.

“The president is swinging for the fences because that is what home-run hitters do”? Perhaps, but he’s also swinging for the fences because he’s got a friendly pitcher on the mound, who’s about to be replaced and won’t return.