Americans may yearn for strong leadership, but in their stubborn contrariness they do not want truly powerful leaders. They may want effective government, but they apparently like divided government even more, when neither party simultaneously controls House, Senate, and presidency -- the situation we've been saddled with for 31 of the last 43 years.
So it should not be surprising that Obama's accomplishments marked the narrow limits of the achievable. They triggered a vicious political backlash in the 2010 election, ushered in yet another round of divided government, and may yet prove but short-lived reminders of the young president's aspirations, not permanent features of the American landscape.
We are a democracy, and cannot escape the logic of the venerable maxim that we have the government we have chosen and that we deserve. Like it or not, Obama's first term confirmed that our inherited governmental system worked according to its design specifications.
The season of effective, vigorous presidential leadership had but the briefest half-life; the wheels of the constitutional machinery designed to hem the president in began to turn almost from his first day in office, as did the gears of our often perversely contradictory political culture. Within two years we had stalemate, and the blame game began in earnest.
But in the last analysis we have no one to blame but ourselves, and our inherited political system -- and we have no plausible reason to expect anything substantially different in Obama's second term.
From all appearances we are most probably in for a repeat performance of the last two years: a remarkably disciplined and decidedly intransigent Republican party dominating the House, a paper-thin and fragile Democratic majority in the Senate, and a diminished, dispirited, and check-mated president with little or no room for maneuver -- and this in the face of perhaps the greatest fiscal challenge in the history of the republic, an increasingly volatile international environment, and a raft of unfinished business like devising coherent national energy and immigration policies.
So why do we get so overheated about the presidency? Why don't we generate some heat about the antiquated system of which the president is but one, too often hapless, part? What is it about divided government, anyway?
If even as committed a change agent as Obama is doomed to four more years of nothing more than Lilliputian, small-beer tinkering; if the self-described greatest power in the world is so powerless to put its house in order, isn't it time for a thorough overhaul of our manifestly antiquated political machinery?
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