Windows of Opportunity.

Howard Fineman wants to know why President Obama is in such a hurry:

So far in his presidency Obama has been tackling, even seeking out,
sweeping, controversial challenges: the stimulus, the auto bailout,
health-care reform, a new arms-control treaty with Russia. He still
wants to deal with comprehensive energy and immigration legislation this
year. So, is he in hurry because he figures there may be no second
term?

Well, my answer is this: Obama is playing a deep, longer-range game, one
that involves burnishing his identity as a "historical," history-making
figure. The president is swinging for the fences because that is what
home-run hitters do. He hopes (expects) voters will reward him for the
effort. Hence, his focus on the toughest topics in the broadest way. To
switch sports analogies, if he were an Olympic diver, he’d always be
attempting the dives with the highest degree of difficulty. If the
execution isn’t perfect, he gets a higher score anyway.

Last week, Brendan Nyhan and Jonathan Chait wrote about the tendency among pundits to seek out narrative or "mystical" explanations for presidential action instead of less compelling, but more accurate, quantitative explanations. Nyhan and Chait were mostly responding to Peggy Noonan's meditations on presidential popularity, but this critique applies to Fineman's column as well. Yes, President Obama has sped through his agenda as quickly as he could manage, but it's important to recognize that presidents have a very small window of opportunity for action. Presidents are at their strongest in the beginning of their terms; they have the momentum of an electoral mandate, the support of their party, and an enthusiastic staff. As time progresses, the president's power to persuade diminishes, opposition calcifies, and intraparty tensions flare up.

It's likely that President Obama has his eye toward history. But truth be told, all presidents have their eyes toward history. As a rule, presidents are people who see themselves as world-historical figures; it's that bit of megalomania necessary for someone who wants to govern a country like the United States. That said, if we're trying to understand a president's actions and choices, jumping to some sweeping narrative isn't particularly helpful. It's a little harder, but far more useful, to look at the institutional and political obstacles a president faces. By the end of this year, it's very likely that Obama will face a hostile Congress and recession-fatigued public. Given those future constraints, he has no choice but to hurry through his agenda.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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