In 2009, President Obama had an ambitious legislative agenda but Congress passed little of it. Whose fault was this?
The conventional wisdom blames the Democratic majority in theSenate. From the July 7th swearing in of Democratic Senator Al Franken, to the February 4th installation of Republican Senator Scott Brown, Democrats had a 60-vote Senate majority. Regrettably, they spent most of the seven months quibbling about healthcare reform and in the end passed a problematic bill that has yet to be reconciled with the version passed by the House. During this period no other major Obama initiative came to a vote.
It's tempting to blame theprogressive mediafor creating unrealistic expectations of how much could be accomplished by a "filibuster-proof" majority when the 60 Senators included folks like Joe Lieberman, who often vote with Republicans. Sadly, the Senate is a stodgy group that since the passage of 1964's Civil Rights Bill has been notable for their collective lack of accomplishment. Nonetheless, the White House should have forced the Senate to take action.
As Obama's principal political adviser and strategist,David Axelrodis to blame for the Administration's lack of urgency. At the beginning of 2009, Axelrod should have warned the President, "You are inheriting a mess. America is experiencing an emergency unparalleled since the beginning of World War II. Therefore, you need to create a crisis mentality - comparable to what happened after 9/11 - to rally Congress to pass your key legislative initiatives as soon as possible."
While the Dems had sixty votes they should have used the crisis agenda justification to push as much legislation as possible to a vote. The fact that this did not happen is the fault of Harry Reid, Rahm Emanuel, and Joe Biden.
In the George W. Bush Administration, Vice President Dick Cheney was the enforcer, who pushed the Bush legislative agenda through Congress. While Bush played good cop, Cheney was the bad cop.
In the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is Obama's enforcer. It's unclear who holds the comparable position in the Senate, although it should be Majority LeaderHarry Reid. In July, Reid had a workable healthcare proposal,The Kennedy-Dodd bill and knew that Obama wanted legislation passed by August. Writing in the NEW YORK REVIEW,Elizabeth Drew observed, "it's commonly understood in Washington that delay works to the advantage of the opposition." Nonetheless, Reid put most Senate work on hold while waiting for Democratic Senator Max Baucus' supposedly bipartisan healthcare reform bill, which passed out of committee - on a strictly party-line vote - in October. (Subsequently, all of the Republican members of Baucus' working group admitted they purposely delayed the legislation.) Reid should have been savvy enough to see that a bipartisan bill was impossible.
In the same article Drew reported, "Early in the year, Senator Harry Reid informed Rahm Emanuel that the public option could not get through the Senate." Nonetheless, the House passed a bill containing the public option, the Affordable Health Care for America Act. This made the reconciliation process more difficult, needlessly inflamed progressives, and further delayed the process. Most observers believe that Obama's Chief of Staff,Rahm Emanuel, is his Dick Cheney. Emanuel didn't do his job; he let the Senate process go on too long and failed to head off a train wreck over the public option.
During the entire healthcare debate, Vice-PresidentJoe Bidendisappeared. It's hard to imagine that he couldn't have helped Reid and Emanuel move the Senate process along.
President Obamashares blame for the collapse of his agenda. Obama has had three problems. First, the Republican Party united in a "Nobama" campaign, doggedly opposing each of his initiatives. Second, as America's first black President, it's not politically correct for him to be seen as strident or pushy. (Republicans have already launched a racist campaign against Obama - the "birther" movement.) Finally, Obama's natural tendency is to try to build consensus and this sometimes conveys weakness.
Obama should have been quicker to recognize that bi-partisanship is hopeless in the current Washington environment. He should have dispatched his lieutenants to Capitol Hill with orders to do whatever was necessary to move his agenda along; he should have forced Rahm Emanuel to be his Dick Cheney. Finally, the President should have sharpened his message; he left too many details of healthcare reform to be worked out by Congress.
In 2010, Obama has to get his agenda back on track. America remains in crisis and there are many legislative initiatives that must be accomplished.
The White House is already working hard. In 2010 they have to work smarter. Barack Obama has to do a better job of governing: sharpen his message, give direct orders, and take control of the message. His lieutenants - David Axelrod, Joe Biden, and Rahm Emanuel - have to be more effective. The White House and Harry Reid must find a way to force the Senate to do its job.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.