Study: Obama better at bending Congress than Lyndon Johnson
According to Congressional Quarterly, President Obama "did better even than legendary arm-twister Lyndon Johnson in winning congressional votes on issues where he took a position." That is to say, if Obama told Congress he wanted X, Congress was more likely to give him X than any president in the past 60 years.
On the one hand, you could take this as evidence that Obama is an awesome president. But I'd say it's a bit more complex than that.
You're seeing the triumph of three things here. First, an uncommonly large Democratic majority. Second, a long-standing historical trend toward party discipline. And third, the White House's relentless strategy of focusing on what it can pass rather than what it thinks is needed.
The first two are fairly self-explanatory. It's easier for Obama to get what he wants because his party controls a lot of seats in Congress -- including 60 in the Senate, which hasn't happened since Carter. Moreover, 60 Democratic votes today are more useful to the president than 60 Democratic votes would've been in 1970.The modern Democratic Party isn't split by Dixiecrats upholding a conservative, racist agenda underneath the Democratic banner. That realignment has also made for more party discipline: The fact that the party basically agrees means it's easier for the leadership to get all the members to do basically the same thing.
The third is a bit more complex. Obama has pursued a very ambitious legislative agenda, but not a very ambitious ideological agenda. Compared with the health-care reform bills favored by Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, Obama's reform package was modest and compromised. It relied on the private market, left 90 percent of Americans totally alone and didn't attempt to wage any ideological battles over what American health-care insurance should look like. Health-care reform is probably too generous a term for it. It was more of a health-care expansion.
Similarly, the stimulus was necessary, but far too small. Financial regulation looks like it will be terribly compromised. Obama's win-loss record is partially a function of refusing to take on fights he doesn't think himself capable of winning. That's probably a good thing, though you could also argue that aiming for the center of the congressional consensus means you start with legislation that's insufficient to the scale of the problem and end with something even less adequate than that. Johnson is remembered as a giant because he was good at getting Congress to do things it didn't necessarily want to do. Obama's genius has been to recognize what Congress was willing to do and build an agenda around those items.
The byproduct of this "congressionalist" strategy has been that it's forced people to look squarely at the dysfunctions of the legislative branch. The Obama administration has largely inhabited the presidency's traditional role on domestic legislation, which is to express preferences but let Congress do the work. That's in stark contrast to recent presidents who have acted more like members of the congressional leadership and done more to dictate the precise contours of bills. At this point, we're watching a Congress that's barely able to keep up with a legislative agenda that is still woefully far from what the country needs. And the reason we're seeing that clearly is in part because the Obama administration has gotten out of the way.
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