One of the memes going around Washington is that Obama’s biggest political problem is that he doesn’t scare anybody (MY here; dickwhisperer here, for example). I think that’s true. Of course, it was also true of the last two Democratic presidents.
I wonder how possible it is for a Democratic president to scare anyone. It seems to me there’s a limited number of ways that a president can screw people: (1) he could sic the press on them, (2) he could deny them and their family Think Tank/K Street/Board of Directors jobs, (3) he could have some arm of the federal government (say the DOJ or the FBI) go after them, (4) he could deny funding for re-election campaigns, and (5) he could see that they were screwed out of earmarks. Have I left anything out?
Realistically, (5) and, to a limited extent (4) (you don’t really want to lose seats by screwing Democrats’ campaigns, obviously) are the only options available to Obama. There’s no segment of the press that the Obama White House controls and I don’t think they have as much sway in the Think Tank/K Street/Board of Directors world as Bush did. On (3) there’s no doubt that Bush used it a lot and that Obama could do the same if he wanted to, but I don’t think a Democratic president could get away with that the way Bush did (largely because of the aforementioned lack of control of the press).
Perhaps this is paranoid, but I think the claim that “Washington is wired for Republican control” runs pretty deep. Democrats, for all their political success, are still pretty institutionally weak. For a long time, Republicans have been more serious about controlling institutions — that’s what the K Street project is about and it’s what the 30 year LIBRUL MEDIA jihad is about too.
At this point, it’s not much of a stretch to say that Republicans mostly control the media and the Think Tank/K Street world (they probably have more power over Board of Directors positions too). And that puts a serious dent in Democratic presidents’ ability to scare anyone.