How Far Can Obama Get Without Congress?

The Atlantic Wire

Today we saw two very different ideas for how President Obama should achieve his second-term policy goals — one in a campaign-style speech on gun control in Minneapolis Monday and another in the recorded gripes of Democratic on Capitol Hill in Politico. Which one has the best chance of working?

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In his speech, Obama took the side of the 85 percent of Americans who do not approve of the job Congress is doing, saying that while, "nothing is done until it's done" in Washington, the legislative branch needs "to do its part and to do it soon." In this case, Obama thinks its part is to pass gun control measures that have broad public support. Democrats, many of whom are on the President's side on the issue, think it would be more likely to happen if Obama quit campaigning and started talking to people in Congress. They feel "frustration and in some cases exasperation that a president who came from the Senate has no apparent appetite for cultivating relationships on Capitol Hill," Politico reports. A "senior Democratic official" says there's "a huge disconnect between their willingness to work with Senate Democrats and their need to work with Senate Democrats."  But is that true? Let's compare what Obama's accomplished by working with Congress with what he's gotten done with speeches.

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Politico published more complaints from the Senate than from the House, even though it's the Republican-controlled House where Obama struggles to get his agenda passed. Senate Democrats — including Jay Rockefeller, Sheldon Whitehouse, Claire McCaskill, and Jon Tester — all said Democratic Senators felt ignored. Retiring Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin told Politico that he warned Obama in August that it's really important to reform the filibuster in the Senate, yet, "I don’t see him calling up anybody and urging them to have fundamental reform of the filibuster rules." There is something a little funny about insisting Obama is responsible for putting together a coalition of Senators to deal with the rules that govern the Senate. Harkin has been in the Senate since 1985; surely he's had time to put together a coalition.

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Congress is very unpopular. It has just a 15 percent approval rating while Obama is approved by 52 percent according to Gallup. In late November, two-thirds of Americans said they expected Congress to act like "spoiled children" in the fiscal cliff negotiations. Clearly Obama can sense  lots of appetite for Congress-bashing. And as the Los Angeles Times points out in its survey of Obama's campaign-style speeches in support of his legislative agenda that Obama has an advantage when the face of the opposition on some of those issues is as divisive as the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre.

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But back to Politico's hypothesis that the Obama agenda is being stalled by Senate Democrats. Most people who have witnessed the last four years of politics would judge the Republican-controlled House, not the Democrat-controlled Senate,  as Obama's biggest obstacle. And no amount of schmoozing would seem to bridge that gap. Obama met frequently with House Speaker John Boehner during the debt ceiling talks in 2011, but those negotiations still failed. Obama referenced this failed sports diplomacy in a January press conference, saying, "I like Speaker Boehner personally, and when we went out and played golf we had a great time. But that didn't get a deal done in 2011." Obama continued, "When I'm over here at the congressional picnic and folks are coming up and taking pictures with their family, I promise you, Michelle and I are very nice to them and we have a wonderful time. But it doesn't prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and blasting me for being a big-spending socialist."

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During the fiscal cliff negotiations, Obama gave a lot of speeches calling for higher taxes for wealthier Americans. Several Republicans said publicly that it would be okay for tax rates to go up on some people. As the deadline neared, the White House sent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a list of possible concessions he could offer Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Reid balled up the paper and threw it in the fire. (McConnell eventually called Vice President Joe Biden to work out a deal.) An anonymous Senate aide complained National Journal"We know that when McConnell has hit a wall with Reid, he calls Joe Biden to get some more candy... We thought it was unnecessary… We had a lot of leverage." Tax rates went up on those making more than $450,000 a year. That's higher than the $250,000 Obama campaigned on, but lower than the $1 million threshold Boehner wanted. 

The clearest case when working with Congress didn't yield favorable results was during the 2009 negotiations over health care reform. As the process dragged on for months, the bill became very unpopular. Sen. Max Baucus spent hours meeting with Republican senators to win over their votes, but he failed to do so. Sen. Ted Kennedy while negotiations were going on, and Republican Sen. Scott Brown was elected to his seat. Last week, National Journal's Jill Lawrence saw a veiled reference to the endless health care negotiations in Obama's immigration speech when the president said, "We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate... If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away." Relatedly, maybe Obama's counting on Democrats bashing him as a jerk in private and then voting the way he wants in the Senate.

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