Obama Cozies Up to Congress
Rereading the transcript of President Obama’s speech from Tuesday night, it struck me that, for a president whose approval ratings are far higher than those of his colleagues in the legislative branch, Obama went out of his way to pay deference to Congress. Not only did Congress “deliver” on the stimulus bill, the president was “grateful” for it. Contrast that to President Bush’s cool treatment of congressional leaders’ work on the first stimulus bill in his 2008 state of the union, when he merely acknowledged that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader John Boehner had come to an agreement with him. Bush even coolly punctuated it with a command: “This Congress must pass it as soon as possible.”
Bush often complained about things Congresses -- even Republican ones -- hadn’t passed, as when he whined in his 2006 state of the union that his social security reform didn’t move. Obama tried to be maximally complimentary, giving sole credit to Congress for doing more on health care reform “in the last 30 days than we've done in the last decade” by expanding a children’s health program. Of course, the new president has less to complain about thus far. But so did Bush in 2001, when he scolded Congress on entitlements: “Everyone in this chamber knows that Social Security is not prepared to fully fund their retirement.”
Obama’s word choice alone indicates a different approach to presidential relations with the legislative branch. The president spoke to the assembled legislators in the first person plural -- about “our” recovery plan, for example. It reminded me of the primary campaign trail, on which he would tell his audiences about how “we” would become the nominee.
But the deferential approach is more than rhetorical. Unlike some past presidents, Obama didn’t present Congress with a list of extremely detailed policy prescriptions. The policy was there, but in skeletal form. Obama asked Congress to send him legislation placing a “market-based cap” on carbon emissions. The details, it seems, would be filled in by congressional committee staffers. Obama did not release his budget plan before giving the speech, so he only spoke in broad terms about his spending priorities. That made the president sound less demanding, even if he passed up his chance to put lots of specific numbers on the record in front of millions of viewers. He even invited Congress to meddle heavily with his spending requests: “Everyone in this chamber -- Democrats and Republicans -- will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars. And that includes me.”
None of the last four presidents had Congresses as friendly as this one is to Obama. And Obama is trying to keep it that way. It’s not just that he is setting bottom-line goals and letting others battle over many of the details, which other presidents have done from time to time. He is also flattering Congress’s strong personalities. Obama sacrificing some pride still might not get his hugely ambitious agenda passed. But it can’t hurt, and it is, frankly, nice to see a politician choose to do so from a position of strength.
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