Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why can't Obama reform government?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
April 29, 2013 -- Updated 1929 GMT (0329 HKT)
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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT