Having covered the low probability worst case scenarios for an Obama administration, I now want to make some general observations about the most likely course for President-Elect Obama and Congressional Democrats. Previously, I said:
Obama’s true genius is in self-promotion and the acquisition of power. He is exactly the sort of person the Framers had in mind when they put so many checks and balances into the Constitution. Today, most of those checks – those negative feedbacks – have been eliminated. Obama will have more scope for a malign ambition that any President in U.S. history.
I stand by that statement. However, the fact that a President wields more power than ever before doesn’t mean Obama has been given a carte blanche.
Some of the checks and balances still exist: Congress retains a huge amount of power but it is rooted in regional, state, and demographic constituencies. Those constituencies didn’t suddenly change in 2006, when the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress. Many of the Republicans unseated in 2006 and this year were replaced with centrists or with conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats. In the House especially, party discipline carries only so far with such individuals – they ultimately have to answer to the voters in their respective Districts. Can the Blue Dogs be stampeded into supporting a radical agenda? Sure, as I’ve suggested in my worst case scenarios. If the economic situation worsens it can be exploited by the left-wing Democratic leadership. Crisis always creates a bias in favor of expanded government power. Absent a complete collapse, however, the Democratic centrists are going to be hesitant to sign on to sweeping changes their constituents aren’t going to like. As a number of analyses show (see, for example, A sweeping rejection of President Bush by David Boaz of the Cato Institute), the electoral center that Obama won voted for more fiscal responsibility and less foreign interventionism – not a “New ‘New Deal’”. Expect Obama’s ambitions, whether malign or not, to be significantly thwarted by members of his own party.
Aside from the lack of ideological purity within the ruling Democratic Party there is a second potential impediment to radical change: the permanent federal bureaucracy.
Back in the good old days, the federal bureaucracy was tiny and largely comprised of members of the victorious party. When the party took power, it rewarded party stalwarts with positions in the government. This system was called the patronage or “spoils” system. All this eventually changed after the assassination of James A Garfield when his successor, Chester A. Arthur, and Congress established the merit-based, non-partisan Civil Service. My view is this was a disaster for the Republic (here is a good, libertarian-oriented historical overview of how the civil service came to be) because the bureaucracy, though nominally part of the Executive Branch, promulgates regulations having the force of law, thus operating as its own Legislative Branch. Over time the various components of the federal bureaucracy have become primarily devoted to self-preservation and “rent seeking”. Today, the U.S. Government really is the unelected bureaucracy.
Ironically, although the permanent bureaucracy is a threat to freedom and antithetical to the whole idea of limited government, it can act as a check on the unbridled exercise of power by a President. A new President is going to be viewed as a caretaker – he or she is going to be around at most 8 years. High level bureaucrats are people who have been members of the organization for most if not all of their professional lives, which will have encompassed several administrations. They have no allegiance to the new President even if they generally share the President’s ideology. First and foremost, their allegiance is to the bureaucracy itself.
President Obama can and will appoint radicals to head key agencies. For example, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr’s name as been bruited about as a possible EPA head. RFK Jr. is to Environmentalism as Torquemada was to Catholicism. Even with someone like RKF Jr. in charge, the EPA will remain composed of various factions that consume a considerable amount of energy in political infighting. Attending this will be all manner of systemic inefficiencies that have developed over a period of decades. The result is a level of organizational inertia that will resist any attempt to rapidly change direction or focus. Assuming he is a skilled administrator and remains as EPA head long enough, RFK Jr. could eventually get the agency to become more radical but even he is still unlikely to turn it into the office of the Grand Environmental Inquisitor, much as he might like to.
Obama will depend on the bureaucracies in the Executive Branch to implement as best they can the policies he and Congress cook up. Federal agencies are probably the least efficient of any bureaucracy so their best is going to be pretty bad. Implementation will be haphazard and schedules will “move to the right”.
A final consideration is that the Obama administration will eventually offend one or more high level bureaucratic factions at some point. In Deep Throat revealed – and what it reveals, I said of “Deep Throat” (W. Mark Felt), “Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.” At a minimum, bureaucrats who develop enmity toward the Obama administration will leak information intended to damage it and the President. Perhaps the Obama people will be able to minimize the political and PR sequelae. The press will also tend to protect him. However, old patterns will eventually assert themselves – the press simply can’t pass up a good story, whether true or not - and Obama will find his policies and competence questioned. Keeping his approval numbers high will tend constrain his worst impulses and he will be forced to be more centrist than he ever intended.