Well if it wasn’t clear that President Obama is going to have as rough a ride from the Democrats as from the GOP, it sure as shucks is now. Yesterday the Senate voted to block funding to the President that would allow for the closure of Guantanamo, and the transfer of at least some of the prisoners to US mainland prisons, or to be resettled in the US.

The bastard move points up one of the key difficulties for a US President — in an era when Americans (and others) have a psychotic attraction to “strength” in leadership, and an almost total lack of understanding of how their government actually works, the checks and balances built into the system at the country’s founding can make a President look weak, when he is merely hamstrung.

Indeed, in the initial governmental form of the US, the President was by far the weakest power. There were about eight Presidents of the United States of North America before George Washington, because the nation itself is older than the Constitution on which it is now based. In the original articles of Confederation, the founders wanted a President who was no more than a chairman of the board, adjudicating between states. He had no power to sign treaties, raise loans, or declare war. He had no power.

The Presidency in its current form was a reaction in part — perhaps an over-reaction — to this obvious defect. It was then, as now, a time of threat, constructed as war — the British had real plans to take the upstart colonies back, while the Americans themselves planned to take what is now Canada, and still did right up to the 1870s (it’s why they bought Alaska from the Russians).

Nevertheless it still retains the form (if not the content) of a res publica, a thing of the people, in the power of Congress. Since a postmodern media-saturated interconnected upthewazoo society places meaning in images rather than things, the people look to the President to wield power in a way that the founders would regard as essentially tyrannical.

If the Senate’s refusal to OK this part of the war budget is kosher — Senate No.2 Dick Durbin (No.2 Dick, rusty trombone haha) has argued that the money can’t be authorised until a more detailed plan for rehousing detainees is agreed on — then it gives the lie to the idea that getting Arlen Specter to cross the floor has somehow given Obama his magic 60 seats.

Even if the Democrats win another five seats in the Senate in 2010, as is highly possible, the Prez will still be faced with putting together coalitions from scratch on matters like this (he couldn’t even get a simple majority on this bit). Indeed the deepest division in the Senate is probably the staggered two-year 33/33/34 re-election process — anyone coming up for assessment by their state in two years time is likely to be a lot more cautious about public opinion than someone with another six years on the clock.

Of course, the more devious explanation might be that the Dems pulled the money from the Gitmo relocation plan in order to give Obama an excuse to delay it, while being absolved of responsibility in the eyes of an increasingly irritated left. But he couldn’t do that could he? Not our Barack? And that would mean that the balance of powers is not a real check on authority but a sham, rendered hollow by the party system. Say it ain’t so.

Coming soon: Barack Obama invades Pakistan.

Coming soon after: I try to defend it.

Peter Fray

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