Wings of Change

Matt Yglesias says it’s Ben Nelson’s fault, not Barack Obama’s, that we haven’t gotten the change we’ve been hoping for with the new administration.

As the theory goes, it doesn’t matter how much leadership or head-knocking or what have you the administration tries to engage in, the fact is that with unified 39-member GOP block in the Senate in opposition, “centrists” like Nelson, Olympia Snowe, Blanche Lincoln, and Joe Lieberman become the pivotal actors, not the President. After all, none of them owe him anything (though Obama did support Lieberman in his fractious primary), and they call have safe seats, so he has little leverage on their actions.

It’s a theory that I largely subscribe to, although lately I’ve been wondering if Obama doesn’t deserve more of the blame. For whatever reason, Obama doesn’t seem to have any coattails, which is odd for a (relatively) popular president. When George Bush was pushing expensive wars and unaffordable tax cuts in 2001-03, the “centrists” couldn’t wait to board the Bush train. The prevailing mindset was, “hey, this is a popular president, let’s get on board with what he’s doing.”

Both had similar job approval ratings. While Bush’s spiked to 90% after 9/11, by late 2002-03, when the Iraq war debate begain in earnest, his approval was in the low 60s, about where Obama was when he started pushing health reform this summer.

Sure, tax cuts for millionaires and wars are popular in this weird country, but so is health care!

I don’t know what it is about Obama. Unlike Bush, he was elected by a clear majority of the voters. Maybe he’s too approachable and not intimidating enough. Maybe the Senate just thinks he’s a young punk and they don’t respect him. Maybe Republicans are just a better opposition party than Democrats (that’s almost certainly true). But for whatever reason, members of congress don’t seem all that eager to hitch their wagons to the guy, which is weird.

Of course, now that his approval rating’s around 50%, maybe it’s more rational to oppose him, but that’s a chicken-and-egg thing. he’d be more popular if he had “gotten more done” (or at least gotten more credit for what he did get done) earlier in his administration.