Is Obama Too Weak in Dealing with Congress?

An interesting theme has emerged in the past couple of weeks from analysts, described succinctly in a recent column by Clive Crook of the Financial Times: "Obama Is Choosing to Be Weak." The Crook thesis is that by delegating so much authority to Congress, President Barack Obama is first encouraging the creation and passage of truly bad legislation, starting with the climate change bill that passed the House before the recess, and moving to the health reform bill slowly taking shape on Capitol Hill.

To Crook, Obama is wasting the talent he has brought to his administration, since officials are spending more time working the phones to build support for the crummy bills emerging in Congress than crafting good policy. But the greatest waste, he argues, is the president himself--choosing not to take his standing with the country to go over the heads of Members of Congress and tell them why they need to support something stronger and better.

Crook is not alone. The unease about the compromises on Capitol Hill extends to E. J. Dionne, among others. For Dionne, who starts with more sympathy for Obama's political context, there is fear especially that the kinds of compromises that Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) will come up with will end up leading to too many concessions, and to a health plan so watered down that it will undermine the long-term goals of covering everybody and containing costs. He ends a recent column with a plea to the president to weigh in forcefully: "He should toughen Baucus' negotiating strategy, and he'll have to mediate among liberals. He doesn't need stone tablets, just an iron will."

If Congress were less dysfunctional--if the minority would actually engage in legislative compromise, and if the majority would be less obtuse at all levels and try regularly and early to engage the substantial number of minority Members who want to engage--the climate change bill would actually be better.

Dionne continued this theme with another column, this time about a president with high public approval, strong standing in his own party and a weakened and divided Republican opposition, who also has to contend with Senate moderates worried about budget deficits and burgeoning debt who are constraining the ability to do major health reform.

These points are all well-taken. The major bills emerging in Congress are crazy-quilt compromises, not carefully designed and intricate policy webs that would emerge from the talented policy wonks in the White House. These are not bills that are bold enough to move us dramatically toward solutions to vexing long-term problems, or even ones that are close to being what an ideal Congress is capable of crafting.

Consider climate change. If I were able to dictate policy, I would do something very simple: Enact a carbon tax to replace the payroll tax. Start taxing something we want to discourage, and stop taxing something we want to enhance. But the chances of finding majorities for something that sweeping are slim to none, and slim just left the building.

Cap-and-trade is the next best way to limit our use of carbon. But finding majorities of any sort even for the next-best vehicle is still Herculean, especially during a bad economy. The divisions are deep and not just partisan or ideological; they are also regional and parochial.

I must confess I was skeptical that anybody, even Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), could pull it off in the House. That they did is a truly remarkable legislative achievement. Who would have imagined that they could hold most liberals--and still accommodate the needs of auto-state Representatives like John Dingell (D-Mich.), who remains a major force in the House? And that they could then gain the support of key coal region lawmakers like Rick Boucher (D-Va). And that they could then graft on the farm coalition led by Collin Peterson (D-Minn.). Even that was not enough to get a bill through; Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had to step in forcefully at the end. And the bill needed all of the handful of Republicans who supported it.

If Congress were less dysfunctional--if the minority would actually engage in legislative compromise, and if the majority would be less obtuse at all levels and try regularly and early to engage the substantial number of minority Members who want to engage--the climate change bill would actually be better. Some of the convolutions required to try to get to 218 with Democrats alone could have been avoided or lessened if there were 20 or 30 Republicans on board. Some GOPers who wanted to take part were pressured not to engage by a leadership that believes that united minority opposition to Obama or House Democratic initiatives is their best strategy.

But even in a wonderfully functional Congress, achieving policy success in an area as difficult as this one would be a tough and uphill battle--no matter how skillful and popular a president may be. The same is true of health policy. Presidents can and must engage, have to step in at crucial moments and shape outcomes, mediate disputes, and use the bully pulpit to push controversial or difficult policy decisions.

But the history of presidents and Congresses shows that trying to do more--to go over the heads of Congressional leaders, to set a series of bottom lines and insist on them from party leaders and committee chairmen who find it easy to resist White House pressure--rarely works unless we are neck deep, not just waist or chest deep, in a crisis. That has always been true, but is even more so today, when majorities have to be largely one-sided and a majority party (especially when it is the Democrats) has limited cohesion or homogeneity.

The approach Obama has taken, cutting Congress a lot of slack and being supportive when necessary, led to a string of early and meaningful successes and enactments. True, the tough ones lie ahead. Finding any majority for any climate change bill in the Senate is even more challenging than it was to get a bill through the House. Finding any compromise between health bills that might make it through the House and Senate, pass fiscal muster, and be enacted into law is a tough slog.

But I believe the approach the White House has used so far has actually been smart and tough-minded, not simply expedient and weak. A successful president looks at the endgame, sees what is possible and maneuvers in the best way to get to that endgame. If you can't get bills through committee, or you can't find a majority on the floor of either chamber, you get nowhere.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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