12/14/2010 10:19 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Power to the Congress

The president has met with Republicans and put together a tax deal that was, he said, the best he could get from them. He argued that something was better than nothing. Since Republicans had declared that they would otherwise demand nothing, the President was being practical. He wanted to get something.

To liberal democrats all over the country, however, this seemed like caving in, like craven cowardice, like ultimate sacrifice of presidential power. They came out screaming and protesting.

Maybe this combination of results is all a very good thing.

First, liberals and activists should understand that Obama did not get elected by sounding like Jesse Jackson who, because of his passion and deliberate attacks on aristocrats and racists, was marginalized in American politics. Obama was not elected, and could not get re-elected, by being an "angry black man". Independents and southerners in North Carolina and Florida, Indiana and Michigan, would not have voted for him and his political calculation is undoubtedly that he needs their votes to win again in 2012.

Obama has a problem, therefore, that no white president has had. His base included the swing vote in the middle and he obviously does not want to run the risk of being seen to embody the caricatures that have plagued his predecessors of color. He has made a political calculation as a black man that the white liberal community ought not arrogantly disrespect because we have never had to navigate as he has had to navigate.

Second, it should be understood that the president has caved in to a senate problem that democratic senators have not themselves been able to solve. The president cannot change the filibuster rule that allows Senate Republicans to stymie every single bill. The president cannot whip Blue Dog democrats to vote for him like Lyndon Johnson, because those Blue Dogs do not owe him anything the way southern senators owed Lyndon Johnson. He is essentially powerless over the Senate and it is disingenuous to blame their dysfunction on him.

Harry Reid and his colleagues have been unwilling for two years to stand up and fight for the public option, or for deeper financial reform, for progressive income taxes or reinstatement of the estate tax. They have been craven in their refusal to take on the filibuster. It is the senators and their rules that have robbed the president of power and given us a tyranny of the minority.

Third, there may be something good in all this: For eight years liberals all over the country reviled Bush and Cheney for their arrogant, Congress-defying exercise of presidential powers. Liberals sought impeachment, sought war crimes trials, sought court enforcement of rules against signing statements, sought the closure of Guantánamo and the end of extreme rendition because in every case these actions represented an exaggerated, vainglorious view of executive power. For all those years, liberals desperately sought a president who would obey the rule of law and give congress its constitutional role.

Now comes a president who has taught constitutional law and who shares their view, according to most reports, that presidential power should be restrained and the constitutional balance should be restored. That means that he thinks the Senate should deliberate legislation, that the House should initiate money bills, that the president should do foreign policy. It means that he thinks that the Senate should get off its duff and deliberate a few of the more than 400 bills sent to it by Pelosi's House, just as the Constitution intended.

In the first week of December, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont made a speech on the floor of the Senate decrying the concentration of wealth and privilege in this country. It was the most powerful statement of position on plutocracy that has yet been heard from any senator. This week, too, Senator Diane Feinstein of California emerged from a meeting with the president on the tax package and acted as if she were stunned. The implication was that she might not follow the president's lead. Rumors of filibuster by Sanders and other began to circulate. The senate was showing some backbone.

It would not be a bad thing if democratic senators got so angry that they revived their pride and their constitutional role and refused to help the moneyed oligarchs who support this tax package. Let Sanders speak out. Let Senators Shumer and Durbin speak out. Let men and women of principle rebel against plutocracy and take back leadership as the framers intended.

Craig Barnes
Santa Fe, NM
December 8, 2010
Author of Democracy At The Crossroads, Princes, Peasants, Poets and Presidents Struggle for (and against) the Rule of Law.