Thursday, November 27, 2014

White House Fool Report: Thanks, Obama

All our political rhetoric derives from a time when the experience of representative democracy as people had it was quite different from today's, in a two-part division of power between the hereditary executive and his appointed representatives and a relatively weak legislature elected by men mostly of property (the judiciary, appointed out of the gentry and largely unpaid, belonged to the Crown, though it became increasingly able to act independently as the 18th century went on).

So we think of our representatives as "closer" to us when they're chosen by a more local electorate, state legislators as representing us more than federal ones and more than executives, House members more than Senators, and so on, and we worry about the danger that the president will act as a monarch or even "emperor", and look to the Congress, "representatives" of the "people", to defend us against tyranny.

But things look a lot different than they did in 1787, and it's really time to start thinking of the possibility of the federal government protecting us from the tyranny of the state capitols, and the presidency as a bulwark of defense against the abuses of Congress.

That's how things turned, as everybody started being elected by a wider and wider electorate with the gradual extension of the suffrage to include working men, women, and nonwhites, to elect presidents and senators as well as governors and House members; and also by substantially different electorates as the turnout pattern evolved, where so many more people show up to elect the big cheeses than the small ones, so many more in a presidential than an off-year election (it's so telling that they call it an "off-year"), and as the patterns of electoral corruption have developed.

The more local the officer, the smaller proportion of the electorate has voted for her (school boards are commonly voted in by less than 5% of the electorate, nobody has any idea who the fk the candidates are), and the more room outside corporate forces have to work their will on the choice, and on the officer's behavior in office, through campaign financing and other not-quite-bribes. State legislatures can be entirely dominated by organizations like ALEC, the governors and federal House by huge individual donors, the Senate only by the largest industries (FIRE, energy, media, agribiz, arms manufacture), and the presidency more able than any to respond to popular desire.

In this way the president can actually be more representative of the people than the Congress, as some pretty simple numbers show: in 2014 the Republicans in the House race received a total of 39,447,318 votes (51.9% of the total vote) from a Voting-Eligible Population of 227,224,334 (turnout 36.4%), while in the 2012 election President Obama got 65,915,796 votes (51.1% of the total) out of a VEP of 222,381,268 (turnout 57.5%). In other words Obama was elected by only 29.6% of the population, but the Republican House to be inaugurated in January was elected by 17.4% (data from Wikipedia and United States Elections Project).

And we also vote more successfully in the presidential race, for policy ideas we support, than we do in the off-year election, bringing in a president that favors, and a Congress that is opposed to, everything we as a people want to do:
Sure, Democratic candidates got shellacked, clobbered, whipped, walloped -- pick your metaphor -- in yesterday's election. But voters also passed judgment on dozens of ballot measures, and the news there was much better. On issues that Democrats traditionally champion -- minimum wage, gun safety, abortion rights, voting rights, environmental protection, paid sick leave and criminal justice reform -- they came out on top.
It's so weird how we know what we want but have no clue as to which candidate is going to give it to us. But we clearly understand Obama better than we do Joni Ernst or Scott Walker as we vote for them, because he actually agrees with us on these matters.

It's in this context that we need to understand the program of executive actions the president has embarked on. When state legislatures and Congress are unable to raise the minimum wage and he reacts by tweaking the wage for federal contractors, he's not replacing the legislature; he's not making new law or usurping congressional prerogative, he's just using the tools he has to put pressure on wage floors, but he's doing what little he can to accomplish our desires, and the same goes for criminal sentencing, and on a larger scale for the immigration policy work announced last week, though we may not know what our desire is as well as he does (we do know, though).

Above all the amazing series of things he has done to protect the environment, especially since the breakthrough with China, is an example of this:
President Obama could leave office with the most aggressive, far-reaching environmental legacy of any occupant of the White House. Yet it is very possible that not a single major environmental law will have passed during his two terms in Washington.
He may not be the Green Lantern, but he's pretty green, and on Thanksgiving I don't usually say "I'm grateful" (increasingly an old Jew, I say, "It could be worse"), but I'm glad.

So happy Thanksgiving.

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