Players are responsible for their own performance, but when teams lose often, coaches get fired. So it was no surprise that head coach Jim Zorn was dismissed soon after the Redskins finished with a dismal 4-12 record. Similarly, members of Congress, not the president, are responsible for making laws, but a great deal of the blame for the government’s largely wasted year belongs with the president. The president’s lack of precise leadership in setting out a first-year legislative agenda – his inept play-calling, if you will – did more to muddle Congress than anything House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate majority leader Harry Reid did or did not do.
Consider the major bills that were signed into law last year:
These bills expose a compelling indictment of an unproductive Congress, not unlike Zorn’s victories over poor teams. Only the stimulus plan and the bank bailout can be fairly called major initiatives, with the latter extremely unpopular and in retrospect, arguably unnecessary.
The inability of Congress to clear larger initiatives, including those on Democratic wish lists (such as the Employee Free Choice Act), can be traced both to a lack of majority support for passage in Congress for some of these bills and the absence of consistent, driving leadership from the White House.
The so-called cap-and-trade bill is perhaps the best example. Over the summer, the House narrowly passed environmental legislation pleasing to the Democrats’ base and strongly desired by Speaker Pelosi and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman.
Obama should have prevented the House from taking up cap-and-trade. It never had a chance of passing the Senate, and thus needlessly exposed vulnerable members to a tough vote. A misreading of the president’s then-high polling numbers likely led the White House to push a poor strategy. Cap-and-trade bogged down Congress, holding up any movement on Obama’s proclaimed No. 1 priority: healthcare.
The House’s passage of the cap-and-trade bill may have been momentarily satisfying, but it was only symbolic and it needlessly inflamed partisan passions and sapped members’ energy for the even more daunting fight over healthcare reform.
When both branches are controlled by the same party, Congress (despite its institutional prestige) is a vessel of the presidency, carrying out the White House’s agenda much like a quarterback runs the plays called by the coach. In 2009, the president showed himself to be an ineffective head coach.
When Obama came into office, his cool demeanor was soothing to weary voters, much in the same way that Zorn’s was to fans who were sick of losing. But just as Zorn’s personality was a weak balm to getting his players to perform, Obama’s personality was poorly suited to moving legislation.
Obama believed that President Bill Clinton’s healthcare plan failed because Clinton dropped a bill in Congress’s lap and did not give headstrong members the chance to contribute. Consequently, Obama took the opposite approach and basically allowed Congress to cook up the bill from scratch.
Obama’s course of action was as misguided, if not as damaging, as Clinton’s behavior. Congress needs direction from the president. While they are co equal branches, Congress speaks ploddingly through 535 perspectives while the White House has but one voice.
At the start of the process, Obama should have come to Congress with a set of guiding ideas of what he wanted in a reform package. This would have both given prideful legislators room to craft a bill in a way that Clinton did not cede in 1994 while at the same time controlling the parameters of the debate.
Instead, Obama sat on the sidelines while members ran in countless directions and frittered away valuable months. He finally did make a prime time address to Congress about healthcare reform in September, but by then, town-hall meetings had reframed the debate, putting members on the defensive.
It is hard to minimize what the passage of healthcare reform would mean. It is a goal that has eluded all of Obama’s modern-day predecessors, and whether or not you support it, the bill will remake healthcare in this country.
The passage of some kind of reform appeared inevitable once the process began: With 60 votes in the Senate, Obama and his advisers calculated that the failure to pass any bill would be far worse politically than a mediocre bill being signed into law, so the drama on reform’s final passage has always been a bit contrived. But should Democrats lose today’s special election in Massachusetts to determine a replacement for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, that defeat could block not just the passage of any healthcare reform, but imperil much of Obama’s agenda in 2010.
The Senate gridlock resulting from a Scott Brown victory would intensify a question that is sure to be asked of Obama’s first year: With a huge mandate for change, with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, and with the powers of the presidency enlarged in recent years, why couldn’t Obama be more productive?
The Redskins’ season has already cost Zorn his job. Congress’s 2009 season hasn’t cost Obama his job, but by setting back his agenda, endangering the careers of many Democratic legislators, and fueling conservative enthusiasm across the country, it’s made it harder for Obama to get rehired in 2012.
Thankfully for the president, unlike in the unpredictable world of pro football, he has three years to improve his record.
Mark Greenbaum is an attorney and freelance writer in Washington.