Can Obama Get His Groove Back?

A Mediocrity in Need of a Movement
“I think people are dazzled by Obama’s rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president — which means, in our time, a dangerous president — unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”

—People’s Historian Howard Zinn (1922-2009)
The Nation, January 13, 2010


Exactly one year after disposing of John McCain, the president fails to deliver in gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. His full-throated support of New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine isn’t enough, and Corzine loses 49-45 percent to Republican U.S. Attorney Chris Christie. Nor can the president resurrect the candidacy of Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds, who goes down to Republican Bob McDonnell by a 2-to-1 margin. Two months later comes Obama’s trip to Massachusetts to salvage Martha Coakley’s flawed campaign to succeed Senator Ted Kennedy. We know how that went.

Deeds would have benefited from a Political Patients’ Self-Determination Act and his loss was a poor measure of the president’s ability to move voters. But the tight Corzine race, and the Coakley results, prove that Barack Obama provides little added value for candidates. After sweeping into office in 2008, carrying with him enough Democrats to deliver the largest House and Senate majorities since the Watergate scandal, this president has no coattails.

SO BAD SO FAST—How did things go so bad so fast? The president got punked. The Republican minority outsmarted Obama and the Democrats in Congress. They began with the president’s single big legislative victory: the stimulus package that passed a year ago this month.

Obama loaded the stimulus bill with tax cuts he believed would attract Republican support. He did so fully aware of the diminished effect that tax cuts provide in stimulating a depressed economy. “[M]ost economists judge that a dollar of government outlay has a larger effect on GDP than a larger dollar [amount] of tax cuts,” Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf told a House committee in February 2009. It’s hard to imagine that the vice president’s economic advisor, Jared Bernstein, wasn’t advancing the same argument inside the administration. In the end, 40 percent of the $787 billion stimulus bill was tax cuts.

While the president was watering down his stimulus package to accommodate Republicans, they had already concluded they could only win if he lost. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor strategized with former Speaker Newt Gingrich, then gloated about denying the president a single Republican vote on the stimulus bill. In the Senate, three Republicans voted for the stimulus package.

With the bill signed into law, the Republicans could only hope it would fail to provide the jobs and economic recovery it promised. While the consensus among economists is that the stimulus package kept the recession from sliding into a depression, Republicans can point to the 10.8 percent unemployment rate and decry the president’s stimulus bill as a failure. “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!,” Minority Leader John Boehner said when the stimulus package passed. “And what he’s turned into is nothing more than spending, spending, and more spending.” Anyone who doubts that the Republican leadership isn’t invested in a protracted economic crisis isn’t listening to John Boehner and Eric Cantor.

TWICE FOOLED?—As George W. Bush once observed: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.” Fooled by the Republicans on the stimulus package, Obama certainly wouldn’t get fooled again.

Isn’t it pretty to think so.

After a remarkable effort by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Whip Steny Hoyer, and Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman to deliver a comprehensive health care bill by early November 2009, the president put the future of health care reform into the hands of Montana Democratic Senator Max Baucus.

The same Max Baucus who had taken almost $3 million from health care interests over the course of his career, including $757,905 from pharmaceutical companies (according to The same Max Baucus who was one of two Democrats handpicked by the Republican leadership in 2003, to sit in on the conference committee finalizing George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug bill.

As chair of Senate Finance, Baucus was going to be in the deal. Yet the president allowed him free rein regarding health care legislation in the Senate. Even after South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint openly discussed the Republicans’ strategy of keeping a bill off the floor until after the summer recess—in order to turn the public against it and defeat the president—Baucus protracted the process.

The Republicans prevailed. The summer brought scripted town-hall meetings with bizarre accounts of death panels, free health care for undocumented aliens, and doctors compelled to work for the federal government—all lies. And growing public disenchantment with the Republican caricature of health care legislation.

The president badly needed a big legislative victory to point to in his State of the Union address. “Had this passed before Christmas, we would be in a very different situation than we are now,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told National Public Radio on the day of the speech. That it didn’t pass is largely the fault of the president and his advisors.

FOOL ME THRICE?—”To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills,” the president said in his State of the Union speech.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow made the same point the day after Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate election: “Democrats have gone from having the largest majority in the Senate since Watergate to having the second largest majority in the Senate since Watergate. They’ve gone from 60 seats to 59.”

Actually, the Democrats have 57 Senate seats and can count on the vote of one independent, Bernie Sanders. They also hold a commanding 257-178 advantage in the House.

Within three months of taking office in January 2001, George W. Bush managed to get a $13.3 trillion tax cut through Congress, mostly tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. And he presided over the dismantling of a body of ergonomic protections for workers that had been 12 years in the making. Even if the 9/11 attacks had never occurred, Bush would have had two substantial legislative triumphs to celebrate as he delivered his first State of the Union address.

Bush did all this (and considerably more) with a 221-211 Republican majority in the House and a 50-50 split in the Senate—until Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords defected to the Democrats.

Bush might not have won the 2000 election, and he lost the popular vote. Yet he governed as if he had a mandate.

His tax-cut bill made it through the Senate without the threat of a filibuster because he persuaded Congressional leadership to use the budget reconciliation process, which precludes a filibuster and requires the approval of only 51 senators. Bush also used budget reconciliation for his second round of tax cuts in 2003. Neither a novelty nor a legislative gimmick, budget reconciliation has been used 19 times since 1980, according to the Center for American Progress. (To repeal the Labor Department’s ergonomic rule, House Republicans used the Congressional Review Act, which also precludes filibuster in the Senate.)

When Democrats suggested budget reconciliation as a possible route to health care reform in February of last year, New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg described it as an “act of violence” against Republicans, “…running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River.” (An idea some might find appealing.)

Gregg is as disingenuous as he is rhetorically over the top. In 1994, he was a freshman Senator using budget reconciliation to move pieces of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America through the Senate. In 2005, he argued that budget reconciliation should be used to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

The day after Obama’s State of the Union address, California Democratic Representative Henry Waxman, who helped shape the House health care bill, said the time has come to use the reconciliation process, to let “the majority” in both houses decide.

The process would allow conservative Democrats such as Mary Landrieu (LA), Blanche Lincoln (AR), and Evan Bayh (IN), to vote “no” and cover their asses and perhaps save their seats (although Lincoln is probably finished anyway).

True to character, Gregg threatens to “make it an extraordinarily difficult exercise” if the Democrats use budget reconciliation to pass health care reform.

Now to see if a president who has squandered much of his political capital will provide Gregg that opportunity.

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