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
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT