Commentary Magazine


House of Cards? Obama and Democracy

Nobody should blame President Obama for enjoying the Netflix political thriller House of Cards. Indeed, the show’s millions of fans (including me) probably sympathized with the commander in chief when he pleaded for access to advance copies of the series’ second season that is due out next year when high-tech execs (including the head of Netflix) came to the White House to discuss important issues, like how to build a functional website. But I wasn’t quite so amused by the president’s much-quoted remarks in which he purported to envy the ability of the show’s villain Frank Underwood to do what he likes.

 “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama joked at a meeting with tech CEOs on Tuesday, according to a White House pool report.

We’re supposed to chuckle at this comment and regard it as an understandable expression of frustration by the president at the inability of Congress to do its job. But I’m afraid this crack tells us more about Obama’s way of governing that it does about the fact that neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can teach Frank Underwood much about passing legislation. The fact is, for five years Obama has sat in the White House and acted as if he had as little interest in accommodating the positions of his political foes as Underwood does. The problem isn’t that the West Wing and its congressional allies aren’t as “ruthlessly efficient” as the wicked Underwood, it’s that he has as negative an attitude toward the normal business of democracy as the character played by actor Kevin Spacey.

That sounds a little harsh so let me specify that, as much as I disagree with most of his policies, I haven’t joined the tin-foil hat brigade. I am not accusing the president of enacting wicked conspiracies aimed at subverting every notion of decency in a cold-blooded putsch to achieve total power as Frank does. Nor do I think he got to the White House by cheating or sabotaging his opponents as did Francis Urquhart, the protagonist of the far wittier but less darkly thrilling original British version of House of Cards.

But I do think that throughout his presidency he has demonstrated a studied contempt for the business of democracy. Not since Jimmy Carter have we had a president who was as uncomfortable working with members of Congress of his own party, let alone those from the opposition. Even more to the point, this is as top-down an administration as any in recent memory. Foreign policy has been largely dictated from the White House, as have efforts to push priorities in other areas. Partly this reflects the president’s high opinion of himself and his distrust, if not disdain, for the opinions of others. As his cabinet choices have shown (especially in his second term), with a few prominent exceptions (Hillary Clinton being one), this is a president who prefers yes men and women to strong leaders running departments. The echo chamber in the West Wing that has made it insensible to the opinions of Congress or the pubic when it comes to the president’s pet projects is a reflection of this attitude.

It should be noted that in the show, Underwood has shown a dogged talent for negotiation that Obama lacks, even if, in the end, the character gets his way more by underhanded tactics than give and take. But he shares the president’s desire to have his own way at all costs. In the program’s fictional Washington where the anti-hero can do as he likes, “ruthless efficiency” can be achieved. But in the real Washington, Obama’s desire for acclimation of his every ideological whim is always bound to be frustrated by a constitutional system of checks and balances that allows the views of the minority to be heard and even at times to stop those of the president and the majority.

The genius of the American political system is that it is antithetical to “ruthless efficiency” because it was set up to thwart would-be presidential dictators, congressional majorities, and even the fleeting sentiments of public opinion as expressed in the House of Representatives (elected every two years) and not to let them run roughshod over their opponents.

The president may want us to think his talk about envying Underwood was entirely humorous but, contrary to his less comical public statements about Congress, the trouble with Washington in the age of Obama isn’t that too many voices are heard but that we have a president who listens to no one but himself and an inner circle that seems to be afraid to contradict him. While efficiency would be nice, what the country needs is a president more inclined to work with Congress in the normal, non-dramatic manner that gets the best results in the Capitol, not the ruthless fantasy Obama harbors.

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