The demise of the Employee Free Choice Act and the woes of American health reform shed light on the distinction between social liberalism and social democracy as forms of left-wing politics. This has been raised by David Brody in his address at the recent Labour History conference where he contrasted the success of the Rudd government in introducing Fair Work Australia with the likely demise of the Employee Free Choice Act (a historians statement of support for the Act is here). Since he spoke EFCA has been declared dead in its current form. The demise of EFCA is an example of broader problems that the Obama administration faces with a Congress where despite apparently secure Democratic majorities the balance of power is actually held by self-defined ‘centrists’ in the Senate, especially given that 60 votes are required to force a vote on legislation. Their conduct confirms that the American Senate rivals the late Weimar Reichstag as a dysfunctional chamber. The inadequate stimulus package has contributed to rising unemployment and health care reform seems blocked. Confused and disappointed voters are likely to turn their discontent on Congress whose approval continues to be very low. At the same time the ebbing of the Obama wave further encourages individual members of Congress to go their own way. The Australian media picks up a muddled version of all this. In fact Obama will be easily reelected in 2012 and his current problems may help him in that the Republicans will be encouraged in their delusional march to the fringe. The current obsessions of ‘movement conservatives’ strike little interest from voters as shown by the strong support for Sonia Sotomayer’s nomination for example. Yet is the opportunity for major reform in the US ebbing away? Will Obama’s presidency be like Clinton’s an interregnum between two periods of hard-right conservative rule? Was the pessimism that Off Center expressed about the likely fate of a Democratic President accurate? Has Obama’s hands-off style contributed? There are divergent views on this. Australian social democracy with all its often unpopular features of hacky Labor MPs and caucus solidarity was able to deliver on FWA, the Democrats couldn’t deliver on EFCA. Overall the likely fates of Obama and Rudd point to the crucial importance of institutions for explaining political development and the uniquely dysfunctional nature of liberal American institutions. Every time American institutions such as primaries and non-parliamentary ministers seem attractive we should consider unforeseen consequences.