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Inertia Must Be Made to Counteract Ambition

Inertia Must Be Made to Counteract Ambition
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Dear Reader —

Barack Obama assumed the presidency at a time of widespread disillusionment with our country’s governing elites. Drawing on populist dissatisfaction and appealing to solidarity, the young president-elect promised an era of hopeful change that would transcend our tired cultural and political divisions as well as reform our dysfunctional and corrupt capitol city. Needless to say, President Obama did not succeed on all fronts. 

His two signature pieces of legislation, the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the Affordable Care Act — however maligned by conservatives — hardly heralded the coming of a social-democratic utopia (or dystopia) or even a return of Franklin Roosevelt’s muscular redistributionism. Instead, the country moved in the direction of a kind of technocratic progressivism characteristic of our coastal elites. Washington, meanwhile — where the former president still resides, near Jeff Bezos and the Kushners — remains as it ever was (albeit with more farm-to-table restaurants). 

To be sure, the mismatch between President Obama’s campaign rhetoric and his political legacy is partly a result of the divided government that characterized so much of his tenure. But even in the arena of foreign affairs, where the chief executive enjoys more constitutional leeway, the continuities between Obama and George W. Bush are more notable than the discontinuities. This is not to say that Obama was ideologically indistinguishable from his predecessors or that he accomplished nothing (for better or worse) — one cannot ignore, for instance, the president’s use of executive power to implement aspects of his domestic agenda. Rather, it is to highlight a kind of institutional inertia — or even resilience — that seems to characterize our political system, concerns about executive power and constitutional limits notwithstanding. 

Enter Donald Trump, who rode a new populist wave into Washington. His rhetoric was more confrontational and reactionary than his predecessor’s, but he made the same appeals to solidarity and the concerns of the working class over and against the decadence and incompetence of our ruling elites. And yet, despite much media fanfare — and the president’s occasional verbiage — the current administration has also failed to depart radically from the political mainstream on substance. Though the president will doubtless leave his own distinctive mark on both the capitol city and the country (for better or worse), Washington, it seems, will absorb the Trumpist revolution, too. 

This inveterate inertia on the part of our political system can be frustrating, even dispiriting, when our political elites appear unresponsive to the needs of those beyond the Beltway. And there are good reasons to worry about ambitious statesmen seeking to transcend the mechanisms of limited government in times of apparent crisis or dysfunction. But a virtue of this institutional conservatism, especially in our divided nation, is that it helps prevent any one faction from imposing its will on the rest of the country. (It is worth noting, in this connection, that our constitutional system was intended precisely to counterbalance the forces of political ambition.) For all its faults — and despite its many contemporary critics — there may be wisdom yet in this political system of ours. 

These are some of the many issues taken up at RealClearPolicy over the past week. Below you will find just a few highlights.

Happy Memorial Day.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy

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Neoliberalism: Mend It, Don’t End It. For Bloomberg View, Noah Smith makes the case for reforming, rather than abandoning, the political center. 

CBO and America's AHCA Headache. In RealClearHealth, Billy Wynne breaks down the CBO’s scoring numbers for the House-passed legislation.

The Trump Administration's Budget Charade. According to The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, the revenue and deficit projections in the president’s budget rely on “wishful thinking and accounting sleights of hand.” 

Fixing Our Infrastructure? How About Schools? The American Prospect’s Rachel M. Cohen spotlights two congressional proposals to improve public school facilities.

What It Would Take for Trump's Wall to Become Reality. In Vox, Dara Lind & Tara Golshan consider the logistics of Trump’s signature campaign promise. 

The Dangers of Loyalty in Governing. In our own pages, Andy Smarick warns that when leaders prioritize loyalty, other essential aspects of decision-making get de-prioritized.

What Is the Impeachment Power for? Keith Whittington explains in Library of Law & Liberty

Mr. President, Here's Your Trillion Dollars. Also in our pages, Lynn Fitch & Jon Christensen suggest a way for states to help pay for Trump's infrastructure agenda. 

Regulators Can Start Rolling Back Dodd-Frank on Their Own. For American Banker, Nicole Gelinas explains why regulators need not wait for Congress. 

Trump's Budget Signals the Absence of a Realistic Agenda. Also in RealClearPolicy, James C. Capretta contends that the president missed an opportunity to make good on his campaign promises. 

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