How Obama can recover from stunning trade defeat: Emulate Reagan

After a defeat in the House, Reagan flipped dozens of GOP votes and got his tax reform bill back on track. But it's a tough strategy to pull off: Obama is less popular than Reagan, and Democrats lost majorities in both houses on his watch. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Ap
President Obama and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California leave a meeting with House Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 12, 2015. The president made an 11th-hour appeal to dubious Democrats on Friday to strengthen his hand in global trade talks. But they failed to back him on a first key vote.

On a crucial vote concerning a top priority of the president’s second term, his own party has dealt him a stunning defeat in the House of Representatives. There is still a slim chance that he could switch enough votes to reverse the outcome, but prospects seem grim. Because of their minority status, members of the president’s party in the House think that the majority had bullied them and the White House has ignored them. Says one senator who usually sides with the administration: “The inability of the president himself and, more particularly, his staff to build up a personal and professional relationship with people on the Hill has made it impossible for his legislative goals to be accomplished.”

Welcome to December 1985.

The president in question was Ronald Reagan. The issue was tax reform, and the lawmaker complaining about White House aloofness was Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa. For months, as Reagan worked with the Democratic majority to overhaul the tax code, House Republicans felt a growing sense that he was cutting them out of the process and giving too much to the other side. GOP leaders made common cause with a group of Democrats who disliked the bill and hatched a plan to defeat the procedural rule for considering it. After the plan worked, Reagan needed to switch dozens of GOP votes to get the bill back on track.

Amazingly, he did just that. The Gipper made an unusual trip to Capitol Hill and asked his partisans to reconsider. He followed up with a letter pledging that he would work for changes in the Senate and that he would veto any final bill that fell short of his objectives. The measure soon passed the House and, after some gyrations in the Senate, became law in 1986.

The story suggests that President Obama still could recover from his recent trade defeat. Nevertheless, his situation differs from Reagan’s in several ways that do not work to his advantage.

In December 1985, Reagan was still popular, with Gallup putting his approval rating at 63 percent.  President Obama’s approval has been about 20 points lower. Even pro-Obama Democrats still feel disappointment. The artist who created the iconic “Hope” poster recently faced the question of whether the president had lived up to it.  “Not even close,” he said. 

With Reagan’s election in 1980, Republicans won their first Senate majority since Eisenhower and picked up a large number of seats in the House. Though they had since lost some ground in the lower chamber, they still had about two dozen more seats in 1985 than before Reagan. Under Obama, by contrast, Democrats have lost their majorities in both chambers. Apart from the presidency, they are now in their weakest position since the 1920s.

Since the GOP controlled the Senate in 1985, Reagan's promise to work for changes in the bill carried some weight. Obviously, Obama cannot do anything similar. In his meeting with House Democrats last week, he took a different tack, suggesting that opponents of the bill were not playing straight. His message backfired and cost him votes instead.

Time is growing short. Ironically, Obama can now pull off a legislative miracle with Democratic liberals only by emulating the man who personified Republican conservatism.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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