When did the White House lose Congress?

By Felix Salmon
June 15, 2009

It’s probably inevitable that all presidents reach the point at which they run into Congressional roadblocks. But given the mandate which was handed to Barack Obama in November, and the fact that Democrats control both the House and the Senate, it’s disappointing to see the way in which both cap-and-trade and regulatory reform are being changed out of all recognition in a desperate attempt to make them acceptable to the Senate.

David Roberts has an excellent column on the political realities of cap-and-trade (and bear in mind here that all the major Republican presidential candidates supported some kind of cap-and-trade bill; John McCain even sponsored one):

Republicans have settled on a strategy of blanket opposition to both the health care and climate legislation… They’ve decided that Democratic successes on either of these major initiatives could fuel further electoral losses, and that’s their worst fear…

It can’t be overstated how much unified Republican opposition is shaping things. The debate is entirely between Democrats, entirely along regional lines, and “moderate” Democrats (i.e. those hailing from carbon-intensive districts) have been accorded enormous power…

In the Senate, there are maybe two Republican yes votes—the last moderates standing, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins from Maine. That means to get cloture, Dems can lose no more than two votes from their own caucus. Meanwhile, there are far more than two senators on the fence (at best) or likely nos (at worst): Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Evan Bayh (Indiana), Ben Nelson (Nebraska), Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor (Arkansas), and several others.

Meanwhile, John Gapper has concluded, reasonably enough, that “the US administration has clearly decided that it simply cannot get any large-scale consolidation of regulation through Congress, given the vested interests involved.”

How did Obama manage to spend all his political capital so quickly? Did it all go on the stimulus bill? Wasn’t the whole point of bringing Rahm in as chief of staff that he could work constructively with Congress to pass an ambitious agenda? And isn’t Obama himself the first president since JFK to have entered the White House from the Senate? I’m not sure when everything went wrong here, but I fear that the damage is now irreparable — and that Obama’s agenda is going to be severely scaled back as a result.


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Biting off big chunks all at once maybe, or as in the case of “Cap and trade” not truly understanding that energy-producing states or districts will provide their own opposition if those regions stand to lose.

I think most would concur health care reform is needed, as is legislation on climate change. But goodness, that’s a lot to chew on in < 6 months.

to quote LSU man Carville…”it’s the economy, it’s the economy”

Posted by Griff | Report as abusive

“How did Obama manage to spend all his political capital so quickly?”

It’s the debt, stupid.

Posted by Mark G. | Report as abusive

I read posts from all over the nation. My gut feeling is that Americans oppose cap and trade by 3 to 1. …and they have good reason.

The cap and trade bill is too complicated with too many moving parts. But that should be of no surprise since 880 lobbyists are registered to lobby on climate change and their fingerprints are all over the bill. Cap and trade will enrich a new class of financial speculator, and cost American consumers billions, possibly trillions of dollars. It will drive-out manufacturing of every description. Even non-polluting Microsoft says it will move jobs overseas because cap and trade “makes U.S. jobs more expensive”.

Cap and trade is worse than a tax because only 15% of the proceeds from auctioned permits go into our national treasury. And the kicker? We’ll never even know if cap and trade worked.

If instead the United States had a national mandate to replace coal generation plants with natural gas and nuclear energy, plus if we replaced our commuter cars with battery-powered electric cars, we would drastically reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce CO2 emissions beyond the cap and trade targets.

Robert Moen, http://www.energyplanUSA.com

Clinton won 5 more electoral votes in 1992 than Obama did, and he had a Democratic Congress, too. I think presidents, early in their terms, tend to forget the importance of inter-branch rivalries and Congress’s desire to protect its institutional interests –almost as much as voters do.

(Between April and September of 2001, Bush faced a little bit of this; it wasn’t really until after 9/11 that the Republicans in Congress seem to have gotten into the habit of rolling over for his worst ideas.)

Repubs are just mimicking the successful strategy that the Dems employed with Bush. No matter what Bush suggested, Democrats resisted. Not saying I’m a Bush fan. Just saying that the tactics of the past (which seemed to work pretty well for Pelosi and company) are being repeated and are, so far, pretty effective too.

Doesn’t help that NK is providing a constant reminder that Obama’s preferred method of foreign policy — talking — is looking pretty stupid right now.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

I don’t think you’re looking at this in the right way. Obama didn’t lose Congress anymore than Bush got votes by actively courting Congress. It’s a dysfunctional institution acting like a dysfunctional institution.

What’s he supposed to do? Somehow unilaterally eliminate the de facto 60-vote requirement? Magically decouple legislators’ voting patterns from the interests of their campaign donors?

Nobody has any idea how to make our legislative process work in a constructive way. It has nothing to do with political capital.

Posted by Mark R | Report as abusive

>Obama’s agenda is going to be severely scaled back as a result.

Here is the reason:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yiQXPOO1 Yo

Posted by eu | Report as abusive

It’s not the debt, and it’s not the Republicans.

It’s about real change. Simply put, everything Obama needs to do divests the entrenched interests in this country, all of whom will sell our nation down the river while they fight to the last man (and pearl-wearing woman) to defend their stake in the old fixed game.

But the battle is unavoidable. We’ve done all the easy things possible to avoid real health care reform and real energy policy reform. Basically, neither have changed since WWII, and they are now the cancers eating our country alive.

But to change these two policies, you have to overcome the opposition of two separate groups of powerful, smart, wealthy, politically active groups: carbon fuel producers and distributors, and health care providers. In both cases, you cannot succeed unless you gore their oxen. Hard.

Now add the need to rein in the banksters due to the current crisis, and the simple, permanent opposition of the WSJ/old fart anti-labor, anti-govt crowd. Wow. You are now fighting 80-90% of all the dollars spent on politics and influence in the US.

Obama is trying to slow walk this. Get the best you can, slowly change the dials on each issue so instead of these horrible, long term, self-reinforicng trends undermining our economy, you start to replace them with postive reinforcement trends.

No chance this will work. Obama will, at some point, have to go FDR or go home.

These people need to be delegitimated. They need to be re-labeled as the “malefactors of great wealth.” Every doctor that claims that he wil shut his office if he can’t make $400k/year, every banker that squeals that it’s socialism if they can’t make a $2M bonus for hyping overvalued bonds, every coal-and-oil-state slimeball that claims that “the working man” can’t afford 10% higher energy bills or gas prices, needs to be outed as anti-American.

This is war, and unless Obama is ready to declare war, he is not going to win.

Posted by Dollared | Report as abusive

It’s because of the filibuster, full stop.

Compare the Democrats in the House to the Democrats in the Senate. The House regularly passes very progressive legislation. Then it gets to the Senate, and Ben Nelson or one of his “moderate” partners in crime sees the chance to be a hero to their conservative constituencies by demanding dramatic concessions. It’s an utterly broken system.

It’s just a numbers game. To stop a piece of legislation, you only have to scrape up 41 senators. To pass a piece of legislation, you have to amass 60 votes. Is it any wonder that the Senate is much more adept at watering down legislation and voting no than it is at voting yes? And that’s before you consider that there are 39 Republicans alongside 20 or so “moderates” who believe they benefit politically from forcing the administration to compromise.

I firmly believe that if Obama is going to be the president he clearly wanted to be, he’s going to have to figure out a way to exercise the nuclear option and kill the filibuster altogether. Call it a first strike, if you will.

Posted by WHS | Report as abusive

How did he spend his political capital?

By not leading. By refusing to lead. By turning over the decision making process to the headless clusterf** that is Congress.

This guy has been running around in circles since he took office giving a major speech a day on a different topic, all of them fuzzy and heart-warming, none with any specifics (at least not that anyone much likes). It is a joke.

Here’s my prediction for the day–all that Bush-hating zeal around the world will be thrown into reverse ASAP if Obama doesn’t speak out NOW about what is happening in Iran. He is a feckless jerk for leaving those brave people out in the cold. It is unworthy of this great country and W, for all his faults, would never held his tongue so that “negotiations” with a Hitlerian madman would not be “jeopardized.”

Posted by Kelli K | Report as abusive

Hmm, Kelli. I know public opinion polls aren’t oracular or anything, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to make the case that a President as popular as Obama “refus(es) to lead.” I think it’s fairly apparent that the stronger a President appears, the more popular he tends to be. I also thought the case against Obama from the right was that he was too heavy-handed. You know, Government Motors and all that.

I’ll admit that it’s kind of inconvenient that he leaves so much decision-making to Congress. It’s also kind of in the Constitution. Would you propose amending it to move more powers to the executive? If so, which powers? How about just scrapping the whole thing?

And what is he supposed to do about Iran? Do you have the slightest familiarity with our history there? Do you suppose an appearance that Mousavi is backed by America would be a GOOD thing for the legitimacy of his campaign? We can condemn the violence and refuse to recognize the election results, but we can’t (and shouldn’t) do much else.

Posted by Mark R | Report as abusive


“We can condemn the violence and refuse to recognize the election results, but we can’t (and shouldn’t) do much else.”

I agree. That’s precisely what he should do. Will he? We’ll see.

“I’ll admit that it’s kind of inconvenient that he leaves so much decision-making to Congress. It’s also kind of in the Constitution.”

It’s worse than that, Mark. He doesn’t even give them guidelines. He writes them blank checks, for chrissakes. Congress!! Then, if there is even the slightest hint of resistance or trouble–take Durbin’s cram-down legislation or Obama’s “strong” leaning against torture tribunals–he caves. Just walks away. “Didn’t really want it anyway.” What kind of leadership is that? Answer: it isn’t. That’s what I’m talking about.

Posted by Kelli K | Report as abusive

The big problem with Congress and Obama is that the Cap and Trade Bill is a poor way to resolve the problem. It will not work and the carbon scare is no more than a scam. Even the special interest groups have only looked at one side and very little data. Scientists can skew the data anyway they want depending upon who is paying for the work. We need to have a full discussion on the Carbon problem in an open forum. Where are the voices of the media when we need them to make sure we don’t go down the wrong path.

Posted by F Belz | Report as abusive


I think there is certainly room to criticize Obama on some specific points when it comes to his dealings with Congress. Like I said above, though, it (the Senate in particular) is a broken institution. Obama tends toward Burkean conservatism in his preference for existing institutions over new ones, for better or worse. The problem of Congress may not be solveable, but it’s completely in keeping with his character to TRY to solve it.

I just don’t think not effectively managing Congress (insofar as Obama hasn’t) is a very compelling indictment of a President’s leadership ability. And I think he’s been much more firm and consistent about his priorities than any recent executive.

Posted by Mark R | Report as abusive

Woo … there are alot of Obama’s ball lickers in this comment area.

The man’s a narcissistic fool. His worshippers are even worse for they are ones worshiping the narcissistic fool. Er and because they actually believe these jackass socialist programs will actually improve anything……


You know what I don’t get, Freemon? There are actual socialists in this country and elsewhere. In Europe, they are a viable political faction. None of these people think that Obama is a socialist. So why do you presume to know better than they what socialism is?

I guess I shouldn’t expect a cogent response from somebody who equates respect for a President who possesses an intellect suited to the office and times with “ball-licking,” but I figure it’s worth a shot.

Posted by Mark R | Report as abusive