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Fri., Oct. 3, 2008

Next president can’t bring big changes

How much change can you realistically expect in the next president? And is big change desirable?

Answer to question one: not a lot, for both situational and institutional reasons. Whether it’s Barack Obama or John McCain, the new president won’t have the money to fund ambitious new ideas and will be dealing with a Congress devoid of bipartisan trust and reviled by a majority of Americans.

Answer to question No. 2: not always, and the founders wanted it that way. They guaranteed regular change opportunities with elections. But they also created divided government to guard against big and impetuous swings in policy.

In a focus group of 12 Missouri voters conducted just hours before the vice presidential debate, pollster Peter Hart discovered widespread wariness about whether the next president could unite the country.

“We have a lot of repairing to do,” said Obama supporter Kurt Wachter, 25, a barbecue cook and college student.

Dawn Pashia, 38, a McCain supporter, cited “fixing the economics” as a monumental challenge no matter which candidate wins.

Americans’ anger over a mortgage and credit industry bailout may have risen in direct proportion to their falling 401(k) balances or in their growing realization that government, business and private individuals all contributed to the problem.

But whether they liked what they saw in Congress or not, this was self-governance. People were complaining, warning, even listening. Many “no” votes on the first shot at a $700 billion bailout plan in the House were from politicians who had been inundated with angry constituent calls.

A dictator or king would have dispensed with that unpleasantness. And public opinion would have been ground down and buried in the seething of the powerless.

Brookings Institution scholars Pietro S. Nivola and Charles O. Jones just released a paper that cited many of the above points in predicting Americans should rein in their expectations for change after George W. Bush. They cite the obvious, including big government deficits and the difficult foreign policy challenges from Iran to North Korea to Venezuela.

Nivola and Jones also say Americans aren’t ready for the big changes needed to address problems like energy consumption. And a close election, as appears possible, would give neither Obama nor McCain a clear mandate.

Obama’s and McCain’s “promises to make over Washington, with ambitious new agendas, will most likely run afoul of old political realities,” Jones and Nivola said.

Besides lack of money, they cite these obstacles: “Well-organized naysayers, partisan polarization in Congress, obstructionism in the Senate, bureaucratic inertia, an enigmatic Supreme Court, independent-minded state governments, a public that naturally likes a free lunch, a mostly nondiscretionary budget and, of course, the rest of the world’s propensity to constrain America’s options.”

For the first time since 1961, Americans will inaugurate a senator as their new president. Neither Obama nor McCain has executive experience, and the learning curve will be steep, according to Jones.

“Executives can duck but can’t hide,” Jones said. “Legislators can do both.”

Jones and Nivola say the new president may conclude that some Bush policies weren’t so bad after all, including education and immigration reform, and could discover how limited the options are on dealing with Iran and other adversaries. Even in areas where both McCain and Obama disagree with Bush, change could be difficult.

“Either a McCain or an Obama presidency would facilitate some sort of climate-change legislation, a departure from Bush’s position,” Nivola and Jones wrote. But the changes will be modest, they predicted, because “a Draconian, hence punishing, assault on greenhouse gases lacks popular consent, in this country and every other.”

In an interview, Nivola said Americans tend to deflate the importance of real change while dwelling on obvious failures.

He said there were major policy shifts on welfare reform and free-trade agreements under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, even though Clinton left Social Security potentially insolvent and fell short on universal health insurance.

Bush also won’t get the Social Security solution he wanted, but Nivola said education reform, tax cuts and AIDS relief were “very big deals.”

“Successes get less credit,” he said, “than the failures get the blame.”

Chuck Raasch is a political writer for Gannett News Service. His e-mail address is

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