Barack Obama yesterday repeated his campaign theme that change can’t come from inside Washington; it can only come from the outside. As it happens, Mitt Romney’s campaign chose to consider this a gaffe, which was silly and probably has no consequences. However, the point itself is fairly interesting, and has already produced a fascinating critique from Ezra Klein and an equally fascinating response from Andrew Sprung.
I recommend them both, but I’ll add that both of them see “change” in terms of public policy, especially public policy achieved through legislation.
In doing so, I think they’re following Obama’s lead: that’s pretty much how Obama has operationalized the previously murky idea of “change” from January 2009 on.
It’s worth noting, however, that “change” might have meant one of two other things. It could have meant (and surely did for some who supported Obama in 2008) a de-escalation of partisan rhetoric, and of partisanship in general. Could Obama have achieved that? Probably not; the key choices on that one were made by Republicans, not Democrats, and the GOP had strong incentives to keep the “tone” right where it was. To the extent that it was possible, however, it’s pretty clear that that “change” would have meant a trade-off, with Obama jettisoning most of the policy he ran on in order to appeal to Republicans. It’s unclear it would have worked anyway, but at any rate it’s almost certainly the case that Democrats would have been highly dissatisfied with the trade-off, and it’s fairly likely, in my view, that even true independents who supported Obama and believe that they want the squabbling in Washington to end would be unhappy with the results as well.
More plausible, however, was another path that Obama downplayed or ignored: institutional change in Washington. Obama could have made procedural reform in the Senate a major priority. He could have made executive branch reform a strong priority as well, including White House openness. For the most part, however, those were minor or forgotten goals of the administration. Again: I don’t think Democrats really wanted those things, at least compared with health care reform (or, for that matter, climate legislation). But if Barack Obama had made structural government reform his priority, it’s certainly possible it could have happened – at the cost, perhaps, of losing some legislative battles he did win.
(Of course, ideally the answer to all these questions is just “Do more, be more effective!” But the next several steps for Obama that he didn’t achieve were clearly policy enacted by legislation, not the other things).
The bottom line here is that while the constraints on presidential action that Klein emphasizes are completely correct and extremely important, it’s also true that there’s a fair amount of room for presidents to make choices within that system. Barack Obama’s choice, more than anything else, was to pass laws to enact longtime mainstream Democratic policy preferences. And that’s what he got – but not some of the other possible “change” that might have happened.