How the Congressional Democrats Doom Obama to One Term

How the Congressional Democrats Doom Obama to One Term

By Clarice Feldman

At a dinner party at my home, a Democrat friend (who is a Washington player with extensive experience as a congressional staffer and in the executive branch before he entered the private practice of law) and I were discussing those things on which we did agree: the overstaffing on the Hill; the fact that much of that staff is young and utterly inexperienced; how the dismantling of the seniority system — which we’d all been for when the Southern committee chairs blocked civil rights legislation — had not been an unmitigated good; and the failures of this administration, with the almost certain consequence that Obama will not be elected to a second term.

I had in the back of my mind been mulling over my estimation that Obama is failing because he allowed the congressional Democratic leaders to shape major legislative endeavors. I believed that this delegation to Congress had resulted in unpopular legislation which filled the coffers of the various interest groups behind the party without meeting critical national needs. Further, I thought that this had been done in a way that was so openly corrupt (like the Louisiana Purchase) that it weakened the president and makes it increasingly likely that he will achieve nothing of significance…and certainly will be denied a second term.
I had considered this collapse of the incumbent’s power and popularity down to Obama’s failure to focus and his laziness and inattention to detail — not to mention his utter failure to master the executive skills he lacked when elected.
My friend had a very different take, and I think it so brilliant that I’d like to share it with you.
He believes that there is an interrelationship between the staffing situation on the Hill and the ineffectiveness of recent Democratic presidents like Carter and Obama — a structural problem that, if it remains uncorrected, will doom most Democrat presidents to a single term in office.
He observes that where once legislative initiatives originated in the office of the Chief Executive, in recent decades, they are increasingly being written on the Hill (by those inexperienced twenty-something staffers). The problem is that once a Democrat is elected president, if he has a Democrat majority in the Congress, then the Committee chairmen believe and act on the assumption that they are in charge. (He didn’t say this, as he remains a staunch Democrat, but I will — many of these congressional leaders come from safe districts far to the left of the majority of Americans.) They craft bills which might be popular in, for example, San Francisco or Manhattan or Boston, but are wildly unpopular across the country. The White House is largely cut out of the process, except to sell the package or twist what arms can be twisted in a White House gathering to obtain needed votes.
This process, my friend continued, dooms the president to one term because he quickly loses national support.
He concedes that there were two exceptions: Clinton and LBJ. He explains that LBJ never allowed himself to be manipulated by Congress. He paid great attention to every move on the Hill. He personally called in each recalcitrant committee chair and member and ruthlessly employed threats — such as promises to block all funds and assistance to their districts — if they failed to support him. Clinton, as we all know, manipulated Congress by his outsized charm and ability to seduce the opposition inside and outside his party to work with him on acceptable compromises.
It’s possible to nibble away a bit at my friend‘s thesis on some historic points. My friend didn’t say this, but, of course, Clinton’s charm offensive was more critical when the Republicans took over Congress. In fact, it may mean that Clinton was not an exception to the rule. One might argue, as well, that LBJ might not have been that exceptional either because the Democratic leadership in the 1960s was less extremely leftward than it presently is.
But without getting too far afield, I think my friend has made a valid point in general, and without a substantial change in the drift of the congressional Democratic leadership, his analysis will be applicable going forward.
That brings us to my friend’s final point: No one should be elected to the presidency without having had a lot of executive experience — either in business or at a government level outside of the Congress (governor, for example, or cabinet secretary).
Given the historic congressional overreach into executive functions and the disparity in the views of the safe Democratic districts from which so many congressional chairmen come compared to those of the American people, unless a president forcefully commands control of the process as LBJ did, or has the charm and skill of Clinton to woo his colleagues to his way of thinking, Obama and any other Democrat elected to the office can count on no more than one term.

Page Printed from: at March 03, 2010 – 03:37:47 PM CST

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