How to notice political change?
November 12, 2008 6:46 AM   Subscribe

What are some actions/appointments/events that I can look for that will indicate if the new U.S. president is serious about change or if he is just more of the same?
posted by larry_darrell to Law & Government (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In some ways, Obama will change things. In others, Obama will follow the lead of his predecessors.

It would be helpful to know if you were looking for "change" in some particular area. (Snarky answer to emphasize my point: if Obama appoints cabinet members, then he is "more of the same" in that he plans to have a cabinet, just like the previous 43 presidents.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:06 AM on November 12, 2008

For a start, you can take a look at this site and track what he promised and see what he delivers on.

I support Obama, but man I hope he can live up to his media image. That man has promised a lot.
posted by Willie0248 at 7:18 AM on November 12, 2008

I think one strong indicator would be the people he surrounds himself with. It's hard to effect change if everybody working for you is entrenched in the status quo. So if his cabinet ends ujp being a collection of recycled Clinton administration execs and long time democratic cronies, then change ain't coming. If he stacks the cabinet with some fresh blood and new thinking that will be a good sign.
posted by COD at 7:33 AM on November 12, 2008

Raising a point that people often overlook -- when it comes to change, there is what Obama wants to do, and then there is what Congress actually makes happen. The two are often different.

Obama indeed promised a lot. Just like Clinton promised a lot. However -- not everything Clinton promised came to pass. But this isn't necessarily a sign Clinton flaked out -- at times, it was Congress that blocked him. Don't forget -- the President can only propose laws, he cannot create laws. A president can propose the coolest policy ever, but if it doesn't actually get hammered out in Congress how that idea would work, that idea never comes to pass.

This is what happened with some of Clinton's ideas -- a lot of the things he proposed just never left Congress. They got tied up in bickering, no one could agree on how to write the bill or agree on whether to accept it, or people tied all sorts of weird riders to it that counteracted other things, and things just died in Congress.

Obama does have the advantage of a fairly strong Democratic-leaning Congress, but he still could get blocked -- no matter what Obama proposes, at least 218 out of 435 people have to agree on the exact specific process for how to make that proposition work, and then another 52 out of 100 people also have to agree on it. Things can easily get bogged down in the "how to make it work" part.

But very few people pay much attention to Congress, because we each only had a hand in electing 3 out of those 535 people. So it's easy for us all to overlook their hand in policies.

In short -- I'd say watch what Obama proposes, but also watch what Congress hands back to him. Because Obama's not the only one who has to bring change.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:36 AM on November 12, 2008

The first 25 Executive Orders. If he does some of the ones unpopular with his own party (for example, fully integrating the military by ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell") then we can expect real change. If he uses his executive orders just to return to the state we were in at the 'end of the Clinton presidency' then he is just gonna be another Democrat.
posted by hworth at 7:53 AM on November 12, 2008

Look, he may end up as "just another Democrat" but considering what we've gone through in the past eight years there is absolutely no questions that there's going to be change. He is undoubtably -- no question, not even one tiny one -- going to appoint judges that are more progressive and more interested in applying the law that the ones McCain would have appointed. He won't appoint well-known sponsors of torture, like this guy. He won't apply judges with extreme right-wing legal views to the second most important court in the country, like this lady.

In terms of the executive branch (i.e., the agencies, like the EPA and the CDC) he will appoint leaders who actually believe in science and in upholding the law that they administer, rather than actively and blatantly trying to undermine the law through politicizing the agencies. Again, there is little question here that Obama will do more than Bush on this front.

Political change is going to come. It may not be as radical as you apparently hoped, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of the agencies and the judiciary.
posted by footnote at 8:27 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

[comment removed - question is specific, please answer it don't just tell us what you think about obama, thank you]
posted by jessamyn at 8:30 AM on November 12, 2008

I wouldn't read too much into his appointments. I think it was Steve Benen at Washington Monthly who pointed out that there's been one Democratic administration in the past 28 years, so if Obama wants any Democrat with any experience in national politics, there's a good chance that person served in the Clinton administration.

Executive orders: it's been reported that Obama has a team of analysts looking at actions taken by the Bush administration that can be undone by executive order. Most of this would return us to the status quo ante, like reversing the global gag rule. Some of it is essentially new, like allowing federal funding for stem-cell research. We will probably see a lot of action in this area quickly, but I doubt Obama will be telegraphing too much of it in advance.

Proposed legislation will probably show the most substantive policy changes, but will happen at a much slower pace because A) legislation takes a while to pass, and B) Obama can probably only push for, say, 3 items on his agenda at once, so everything that would need enabling legislation needs to get through that bottleneck of available attention.

Another area where we may see change is international treaties. These, of course, involve the executive taking the lead, but then require the Senate to ratify, so it's possible Obama would commit to some treaties that didn't get ratified. Again, some of this might be essentially undoing the last 8 years, some of it might be new. I can easily imagine a treaty that called for unprecedented levels of coordination between central banks, market regulators, that sort of thing, to avoid a repeat of the current financial crisis. That would be very big.
posted by adamrice at 8:55 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

The first big thing to look for, IMO, is who gets appointed to run the Treasury. Two big names unfortunately being kicked around are Robert Rubin, who held the post under Clinton, and his protégé Larry Summers, who succeeded him under Clinton.

Rubin became a darling of the Dems for helping prime the economic pump of the 90's, but has since been fingered as one of the key enablers of the policies- put in place by both his department and his cohort Alan Greenspan at the Fed- that have left us in this awful economic crisis we're currently facing. Summers continued More of the Same, and holds some pretty offensive views toward the global poor.

Either of those guys coming back to run the department they set up to fail so spectacularly is a poor sign.
posted by mkultra at 11:39 AM on November 12, 2008

To add a little onto what EmpressCallipygos says: Regardless of who won last Tuesday you can bet there are a huge number of people who have gone back to watching House on Tuesday night. The point is that most folks tune in for the really big stuff then go back to their lives and only catch large blips on the political radar. Three and a half years from now, they'll be overwhelmed with their choices again, wondering how in the world they're going to verify the claims within the next election cycle. They most likely won't try and just vote their best guess. It's not that these folks are stupid or lazy or dumb; they're BUSY with their lives.

But it's more than that. "Change," however you may define it, is not usually quick. There are a number of folks who believe that, come January 20, Stuff will be undone and Stuff will occur. (I make no judgments here.). Hah. Most such things, as EmpressCallipygos points out, will need to go through the other houses of government and many, many things will not come out as proposed, if they come out at all.

In my opinion, the only real way to keep track of "change," is to do the uncommon. You have to follow the President's actions. You have to follow the Congress. You have to decide who represents the best unfiltered view in the media so you can come to your OWN decisions about whether the "change" occurred and whether it was good or bad.

Most people don't have the time or the stomach for it. I don't. I know people who do, but I don't understand how. As soon as I hear the schoolyard name-calling, I lose my temper and go watch House. But, really, if you honestly want to track "change" you have to pay close attention between election cycles.
posted by tcv at 12:03 PM on November 12, 2008

Here are three things I'll be looking for:

(1) Cabinet. Every member of Bush's cabinet is Republican (Except for possibly James Peake, the Secretary of Veterans' Affairs, who I wasn't able to determine the party of). Obama has said that he will fill his cabinet with politically diverse people including Republicans and Independents. Whether he listens to them is another matter, but I think this is an important thing.

(2) Guantanamo. I hope he closes it as he's promised.

(3) Iran. See if he sits down with Ahmadinejad. It will be a change from the current policy of not talking to people we don't like. My thoughts are that he's the elected head of state of a sovereign nation; he should be talked to no matter what we think of him.
posted by losvedir at 12:18 PM on November 12, 2008

losvedir writes "Every member of Bush's cabinet is Republican"

Transportation's Norm Mineta is a Dem.

To the original questions: Count the Clinton Cronies. Yeah, Steve Benen is right, any Dem who is anyone was in the Clinton Admin, but not all were cronies. Count the Daley cronies. And especially count the DLC'ers.

Of course Obama has to bring in some of each, but check the proportions of the three above types to new faces. Be especially wary of DLC types.

Figure out which appointments are pay-offs for the campaign (e.g, Ed Rendell types, top Dems of Blue States) and which are "policy" appointments (e.g, Rand Beers types).

But most important, what happens in the First Hundred Days? Obama will still be in his honeymoon period, he'll have a Dem House and a 58 Dem majority in the Senate. Does he go in gangbusters and double-down, or do we get more Reid-Pelosi caution?

Given that the honeymoon ends quickly, and that the economy is imploding, Obama gets one chance to throw the money-changers out of the temple. If he backs down or plays cautious, it'll quickly be Washington business as usual while the rest of us play Joads.

If he's gonna be a game changer, it'll have to be pretty damn obvious as he mounts the bully pulpit and does everything short of packing the Court. Like FDR, that'll mean crushing the opposition, including that in his own party (as FDR did to Southern Dems who opposed him) and railroading legislation through Congress; but frankly, that doesn't seem to be Obama's style, and I don't think conciliatory bipartisanship is gonna work to bring real change.
posted by orthogonality at 12:53 PM on November 12, 2008

Personally, I think you need to examine your own biases and assumptions. What do you mean by "serious about change"? What do you mean by "more of the same"?

Obama certainly will reverse a number of Bush policies. He may favor consensus and be bipartisan at times, but he's no Republican. He won't be "more of the same" in the sense of the campaign chant.

But maybe you consider "more of the same" to mean pursuing mainstream Democratic policies. Since he will certainly do that even if he is at heart either more progressive or more centrist, depending on the issue, your expectations may be based on image more than reality.

Perhaps by "serious about change" you mean he'll restore civility to Washington. He will be one man, and there's already a media machine geared up to slime him at every turn, so that's a tall order. Perhaps you mean he will usher in new kinds of politics and political participation. Personally, I believe this will be one of his main legacies. It's not clear how well he will be able to integrate his "peer to peer" campaign organization as an elected official, but he does seem to want to create communication avenues. The alumni of his campaign, by contrast, will have learned a great deal about "community organizing" and related skills, and those that don't get political jobs will fan out across the country. I'm excited to see what that leads to.

I would say that there are a few bellwether issues that will indicate how radical Obama is going to be, starting with those executive orders. But I actually don't expect him to look for opportunities to break with his own party. In some ways that was what both Clinton (triangulation) and Carter (outsider/reformer) tried to do and in both cases seriously damaged their own political capital. Obama is much more cautious and not even necessarily interested in credit. There are probably a number of issues on which he will take the Kerry advice and try for an 85-Senator consensus, and others on which 51 Senators will be just fine, but I don't think he is going to want four years of that kind of politics. Look for a sweeping Iraq withdrawal plan that gives the Iraqi government some dignity and honor. Look for a partial FISA reversal, but not a complete one, as there are elements in that law that the intelligence community deeply wanted for a long time. Look for incremental health care initiatives. Don't look for out-of-the-gate culture-war bait like Don't Ask, Don't Tell or gay marriage. I just don't think it's his preference to go there.
posted by dhartung at 4:13 PM on November 12, 2008

You can look at the issue of change in terms of application of competence. Everything I've seen so far indicates that Obama's cohort reward competence over all. His Chief of Staff is a noted a**hole, but is also noted as being someone competent people enjoy working for. As a first assignment it points the direction Obama is headed towards, getting things done. There will be a lot of bodies on both sides of the aisle but I'm pretty confident that Obama will get his agenda implemented one way or another. Whether you think that agenda is worthwhile becomes a matter of interpretation. But you can rely on the fact that there will be no "heckuva job Brownies" still standing if one of his projects heads south.
posted by ptm at 4:38 AM on November 13, 2008

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