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Governing is more than a morality tale

One of the common misperceptions of American politics is that a great speech or a rhetorical call to arms can shape domestic policy.

In fact, the Founding Fathers established a system of governance -- with separation of powers, and checks and balances -- that makes it very difficult to get things done. The exceptions often have come after national tragedies (see: the Great Society after JFK's assassination) or when one party holds the White House and a supermajority in Congress (see: the New Deal under FDR, when Democrats once held a 75-17 majority in the Senate).

As presidential scholar Richard Neustadt once observed, the White House is actually a weak office when it comes to domestic affairs, and that successful presidents -- in terms of getting things done -- use their powers to persuade and bargain. Neustadt wrote:

A President, these days, is an invaluable clerk. His services are in demand all over Washington. His influence, however, is a very different matter.

But Drew Westen's harsh critique -- from the left -- of Barack Obama's presidency so far misses this understanding of separation of powers, checks and balances, and the difficulty of achieving major reform.  

Westen's chief complaint of Obama in his much-discussed New York Times opinion piece: The president has failed to deliver a morality tale about who and what had caused the nation's economic woes, and who was going to fix them. "That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement."

In his article, Westen goes on to criticize Obama's economic stimulus ("he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown to be inert") and the health-care law (Obama, Westen argues, failed to state what it would accomplish other than it would "'bend the cost curve'").

But would a morality tale -- in which Obama cast the Republicans as the bad guys -- have helped convince the three Republican senators Obama needed to break the GOP filibuster (Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter) to vote for the legislation? In fact, those GOP senators demanded the extra tax cuts as a concession for their votes.

Would an us-vs.-them narrative have persuaded the Republicans it took to pass financial reform, repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and ratification of New START? (Remember: Democrats enjoyed a filibuster-proof Senate majority for only six months, from July '09 to Jan. '10.)

And would it have galvanized the conservative Dem senators from GOP-leaning states (like Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and Max Baucus) to pass the health-care law. 

It's cliché, but it's also true: Politics is the art of the possible. And in a political system that favors inaction over action, it's extraordinary when major legislation is passed by Congress and signed into law, no matter the legislation's merits or the compromises therein. As presidential historian Robert Dallek -- who taught this reporter -- wrote in Dec. 2009 after the Senate passed health-care (before Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts):

FDR had an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions in 1933 when he drove 15 major bills through the Congress, and super majorities in the House and the Senate in 1935 when he won passage of Social Security.

Johnson's mastery of the Congress in getting a revolutionary civil rights bill passed in 1964 partly rested on his use of President Kennedy's martyrdom...

Mr. Obama had a much higher mountain to climb in passing national health insurance. True, he won a convincing majority in 2008, and his party has a solid majority in the House and the 60 Senate votes needed to defeat any Republican filibuster. But these are pseudo-advantages: The conservative House Democrats and his dependence on unreliable Senate allies like Connecticut's Joe Lieberman and Nebraska's Ben Nelson forced compromises on the public option and abortion that made his liberal backers grudging supporters.