Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why can't Obama reform government?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 3:29 PM EDT, Mon April 29, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: The defeat of the gun control bill was devastating for the Obama administration
  • Zelizer: Now the president faces another tough challenge with immigration reform
  • Obama's trouble has more to do with how government works rather than his skills, he says
  • Zelizer: Without reforming government, the path to gridlock is not going to disappear

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama is having a tough time.

The defeat of the gun control legislation was devastating. Despite strong public support for tighter regulations and the backing of a bipartisan coalition, a furious blitz from gun lobby groups persuaded enough senators to kill the legislation. The bill's sponsors could not find the 60 senators needed to stop a filibuster.

One would think that the horrific tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, would be enough to move lawmakers to impose some regulations, such as tougher background checks. But it wasn't enough.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Now the president faces another challenge with immigration reform. A bipartisan group in the Senate, led by Charles Schumer and Marco Rubio, has put together an immigration bill that includes a path to legalization for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country and tighter border control. It appears that the bill has a chance to pass the Senate.

But will House Republicans subvert the deal?

Opinion: Did we learn nothing from Newtown?

Immediately after Congress killed the gun control legislation, critics started pointing to the president's hesitation to twist arms and lean on members of Congress. In what has become a familiar refrain, Obama was no Lyndon Johnson.

Yet Obama's trouble has much more to do with the way government works than his skill, or lack thereof, at working Capitol Hill.

Too much emphasis is placed on the small picture of what he does or does not do in his personal interactions with Congress, or his "messaging." Actually, it's not so much him as the government.

Obama understood this when he ran for president in 2008. He spoke constantly about the need to reform the government and the way in which our political processes hamper the ability of Congress and the president to take action.

Gun control amendment fails in Senate
McCain: I can get the immigration votes

Yet once he was president, Obama put the issue of reform on the back burner. He decided to focus on the policy challenges ahead, generally dismissing the idea that there was much chance for him to make government work better. In certain cases, such as with the use of private money and political action committees, he decided to join the game and make sure it worked to his advantage.

The decision has come at a cost.

Opinion: Gun control fight just beginning

Throughout his presidency, Obama has struggled as private interest groups have continued to exert enormous power over the legislative process. When Obama pushed his health care law through Congress, he felt the need to abandon hugely important measures that would have imposed tough cost controls. He did so to placate powerful interest groups in the medical industry who were dead set against these measures.

The financial regulations imposed by the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in response to the financial crisis of 2008, have struggled as interest groups continually undercut their effectiveness by persuading legislators to avoid any kind of tough implementation.

This time around, gun rights organizations -- from giants such as the National Rifle Association to smaller operations -- conducted a massive and unyielding blitz on legislators. Even bipartisan support, a rarity in Washington, was not enough for the bill to succeed.

Other issues, such as tax reform to close loopholes, have simply been abandoned because they seem so impossible given the power of lobbyists and campaign contributors who lurk on K Street. The power of money makes it extremely difficult for politicians to go out on a limb.

The filibuster has also remained the chronic obstacle for Obama. With the constant threat of the filibuster against almost any piece of legislation, almost every bill requires a 60-vote super majority in the Senate. This makes it hard to build a coalition behind legislation and in most cases allows small factions within a party to subvert presidential proposals. Presidents usually need bipartisan support to get 60 votes, and bipartisanship is almost impossible nowadays.

Opinion: One way to fight guns

This was certainly a challenge for gun rights, and could make immigration reform vulnerable in the final stages of debate. As with money and politics, the filibuster has also made other issues altogether impossible to consider even.

When the immigration bill reaches the House of Representatives, the trouble will begin. House members in gerrymandered districts care about the party activists who tend to be the loudest voices. The situation to avoid is one where the Republican caucus drifts further to the right even while counterparts in the Senate and public opinion support immigration reform.

The truth is we will never know what was possible in that transformative moment that followed Obama's historic election or after his re-election in 2012. But without reforming our government, the path to gridlock is not going to disappear.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT