This should be worrisome to Democrats and Obama partisans because it is the essence of governing; getting things done in Congress.
The fact is, since the stimulus bill passed, only one or two of Obama’s major agenda items or policy prescriptions has made it to the floor of the House or Senate - yet. Climate change - a much watered down version of what the president wanted (itself evidence that he is not fighting for his agenda with the usual vigor that presidents are wont to employ on centerpiece agenda items) is due to hit the floor of the House this week but other than that, the list of legislative initiatives in limbo is a long one:
1. EFCA. Despite pouring half a billion into his election campaign and those of other Democrats, unions are still having a devil of a time coming up with a legislative majority in either body.
2. TARP II. Dead in the water with no visible movement from the White House in getting it restarted.
3. Cap and Trade. This was the centerpiece of Obama’s climate change bill and was supposed to fund the health care initiative to the tune of some $700 billion. Alas, farm state lawmakers whose utility companies would be forced to charge out of sight prices for electricity have so watered down the program (and the senate is set to make even more drastic changes - perhaps even scrapping cap and trade altogether) that it not only won’t be bringing in much revenue but it won’t do what it’s advertised to do.
4. Immigration reform. Nowhere on the radar except for a vague promise to bring it up later this year.
5.. Health care. Several versions still moving through Congress.
The common thread in all of these initiatives is a lack of effort from the president to shape the debate in his own party. He has been very comfortable in allowing Congress their heads in forming legislation with very little obvious input from the president.
Bush was engaged on his major initiatives, with Karl Rove acting almost like a committee chairman at times in helping to shape legislation. Obama’s team is very adept at politics but I have yet to see the kind of engagement from the White House on legislation that a president needs in order to get most of what he wants.
Yes, the president tries to “sell” his programs. But his efforts are better suited to the campaign trail than the Big Chair in the Oval Office. The nitty gritty of “herding cats” in Congress is a matter that takes a lot of effort. And I allow for the idea that I may be mistaken, but I don’t see that effort forthcoming from the president or his top aides.
He appears to be most effective (from his point of view) where only the executive branch is involved. The auto takeovers and subsequent bankruptcies of Chrysler and GM have gone smoothly. Part of the reason there was some effective pressure put on the principles that smacked of goon tactics at times. Presidents bust heads in their own administration but the real test is in how they can cajole, plead, threaten, and reason with Congressmen in order to get what they want.
You would think a lot more would have been done in 6 months given the economic crisis and the administration’s admitted excuse to use it as a club to pass what they see is necessary legislation. Obama has imparted no sense of urgency to legislation (except for the stim bill), nor has he sought to leave many fingerprints on bills moving through committee.
Tomasky’s argument, then, suggests it’s time to expand the elements these Dems are afraid of, and include the popular president. It’s time, Tomasky says, for Obama to show he can “scare people.”
Obviously, different approaches would be needed with different senators. There’s probably not too much the White House can do to scare Ben Nelson. But if the vote-counters are lining up support on, say, a genuine public option, I can imagine someone in the West Wing letting Joe Lieberman know, “The president is interested in hosting a town-hall event in Bridgeport, and he’s about to tell everyone in the state to call your office.” Or maybe calling Arlen Specter to mention, “Obama is going to talk about reform in Pittsburgh, and Joe Sestak might be there.”
Or maybe just telling the whole caucus, “If health care drags me down, I’m dragging all of you with me.”
There’s still time to see how all of this plays out, but when push comes to shove, it’s not too much of a stretch to think Obama might turn to his chief of staff for a few ideas on how best to scare members. When it’s time to “start banging some heads,” I suspect Rahm Emanuel might have a few ideas.
It is that kind of engagement that I am arguing is missing from the Obama White House. It raises questions about whether the president is still getting his feet wet or whether he really doesn’t have much of a clue how to govern.
Benen’s “town hall” idea is a case in point. Curiously, Obama’s forays into activating his grass roots network to help with Congress have so far met with limited success. Holding a “town hall” event to get citizens to deluge a member’s office with mail and phone calls wouldn’t be much of a threat given that fact.
Why not call the senator on the phone and use some of those community organizing skills to bring the member around? During the Reagan administration, it was Mike Deaver who would put out information on how many calls the president made to members of Congress or who he had in for a little personal lobbying. This was routine stuff and, I may be oblivious but has Obama made that kind of personal lobbying effort? I haven’t seen it so if he has, it has been under the political radar.
The aimlessness of Democrats on the health care issue as they are looking at several competing bills also suggests a lack of input by the president. It isn’t a question of expending political capital. He is head of the party and should be able to wrangle what he wants from Congress. It may be occurring at a level of which I am unaware but direction in this intra-party health care debate seems lacking. He is giving Congress their head and at this stage, it appears that the whole idea of a “public option” for health insurance - even in his own party - may be in danger.
We are far enough along in the Obama presidency to make judgments like this and my take is that either he doesn’t feel the need to get involved or he doesn’t know how to do it effectively. I’m not talking about press conferences, or town hall meetings, or his upcoming infomercial on June 24th with the Obamabots at ABC news. That’s all well and good and we know he can sweet talk with the best of them.
What we haven’t seen is the president getting in the trenches to fight for what he wants from Congress on specific bills. And unless he is prepared to do that, I don’t see how he will be a successful president.