THREE days after his inauguration in January of 2009, President Obama met with congressional leaders to discuss his proposed economic stimulus plan. To Republican senators who suggested some tax policy changes, Obama replied with what was to become his signature disdain. “I won,” he said. The next year, Obama held a health care summit, aired on live television, to discuss an Obamacare proposal Democrats knew Republicans could not support. Senator John McCain pleaded for more Republican input in shaping the bill. He said the people of his state would never get behind the proposal.
“They want us not to do this kind of legislating. They want us to sit down together and do what’s best for all Americans.” Obama, his eyes down, his irritation obvious, dismissed McCain with unmistakable contempt. “Let me just make this point, John, because we’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over.” “I won” came to define the president’s attitude toward Republicans — even after their victories in 2010 and 2014. Obama appeared to view the presidency as the only election that mattered, the voters who elected him as the only ones whose voices counted.
In 2013, after the government shutdown and the 2010 Tea Party “shellacking” of Democrats nationwide, Obama struck the “I won” pose again. “You don’t like a particular policy or a particular president? Then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election,” he said. A Washington Post headline put it this way: “Obama scolds Congress.” For eight years, Obama pretended that his victories over John McCain and Mitt Romney somehow invalidated all opposition to his proposals. Only raw partisanship could explain his opponents’ positions because, after all, he had won.
But the Republicans who were opposing his agenda had won too. They were elected by real Americans who had real reservations about Obama’s policies. Their voices deserved to be heard. Our republican system of government was designed specifically to empower them. And yet Obama spent two entire presidential terms telling them to get lost. The United States does not have a parliamentary system in which the majority party automatically controls the entire government. Our executive and legislative branches are divided, and our Congress further split into two chambers, to make it extremely difficult for one faction to rule over another.
Like Obama in 2008, Donald Trump will enter the White House with a congressional majority. The temptation to tell Democrats “I won” might prove too powerful for a man who has exhibited impulsive and vindictive behaviours for his entire public life. But if he can resist it, he has a chance to be the transformational figure Obama failed to become. If Trump repeats Obama’s mistake of interpreting the plea for a functional, responsive government as a mandate to rule a nation of 325 million people, then his will be a similarly divisive and failed presidency. And he will perpetuate the cycle in which Americans seek to correct the overreach of the party they just elected by swinging the next election to the other one.
The people want a government that works for them, not for Washington insiders and not for political parties. And they want it to produce tangible, positive results. For all of his flaws, Trump appears to get this. As he put it in his victory speech, his election was historic, “but to be really historic we have to do a great job.” That starts with recognizing how the American system works. It is not built for a president to impose his will on the country. It was built for all the people to have a say — and a stake — in governing through ongoing negotiation and compromise, with the bulk of that work being done back in the states. If Trump strives to restore a functioning federalist government, he, of all people, could be the unifying figure the people have wanted for so long. Is Trump capable of this? Who knows? But wouldn’t it be something if he tried? — Courtesy: USA Today