It is too early for me to claim vindication for this post. Given the high expectations that President Obama came to power with, and the enormity of the task before him, it was inevitable that his first 100 days would disappoint. But I want to make a point about he American political system that many people do not appreciate. The point is that:
The American political system tends to overpromise, but underdeliver change.
Why? Because of the preponderance of direct elections. Presidential candidates have to win many direct elections before they come to power. To win direct elections, you have to establish yourself as your own man even if you are in the same party as the incumbent. In other democracies, handpicked successors tend to gain the organizational backing of the ruling party. In the US, because of the unique organization of parties, there is very little to gain. Even if the incumbent was hugely popular, 8 years of him would have wearied the voters, and his successor needs to be wary of promising 4 more years of the same. George W Bush was, to put it mildly, not very popular in November 2008, which is why you had both candidates promising change, but similar dynamics would have applied even in 1988, when George Bush was running to succeed Reagan.
So why would it be difficult to deliver change? Because of direct elections again. Both the President and Congressmen are directly elected. Neither is beholden to the other branch. In a Parliamentary system, a popular Prime Minister would be able to handpick his legislators – in fact, he would have to, because otherwise there would be a chance that he would get dislodged despite his popularity. In the US presidential system, there is
a) structurally no way for a President to pick his legislators
b) no need for a President to do the same and
c) a risk if he attempted it, because the unpopularity of some legislators may drag him down.
For these reasons, a President, even if he is elected on a mandate for change, will find it difficult to push his legislative agenda through.
None of these explains Obama’s failure so far. That is another story.