Welcome Back, Congress

By Dan Froomkin
12:29 PM ET, 06/19/2009

If you believe in the legislative process -- if you actually believe that members of Congress have a role in formulating the laws of this land, rather than just rubber-stamping whatever the president wants -- then you really can't get freaked out when that process gets messy. It is a messy process.

If you persist in seeing all of politics as a game, and believe that all that matters is who appears to be winning or losing at a particular moment, then yes, it may look to you like President Obama is losing right now, because so many lawmakers are suddenly running around with their hands in the air screaming.

But I don't think that's correct. It's just that unlike former president George W. Bush, who treated Congress like an appendage of the executive branch, Obama has made it clear that he thinks Congress actually gets to do its job again.

Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post:

President Obama's hopes for quick action on comprehensive health-care reform ran headlong this week into the realities of Congress, as lawmakers searching for the money to pay for a broad expansion of coverage discovered that it wasn't easy to find and descended into partisan -- and intraparty -- bickering.

A set of unexpectedly high cost estimates -- arcane data that nevertheless carry enormous import in the legislative process -- sent shockwaves along Pennsylvania Avenue and forced one key committee to delay action on its bill, probably until after the July 4 recess.

But the White House doesn't seem unduly alarmed. Connolly writes that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel described haggling over cost estimates as a routine part of lawmaking, and told her: "Since it's the first inning, I wouldn't call the game."

Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei write for Politico:

"This was always going to be messy," said a senior administration strategist. "It got messy faster and earlier than people thought. But none of it is anything that’s going to stop it."

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz writes:

There is a tendency in the press, of course, to over-obsess on process, to overreact to each tactical setback. Remember all the back-and-forth over whether the stimulus package should be more than $787 billion? Of course you don't. It seems unimportant now, compared to the overarching question of whether unemployment will hit 11 percent and the economy will stabilize.

By year's end, Obama will either have delivered on health reform or he won't. His green-jobs energy package will be law or it won't. Presidents don't get everything they want, and the public is usually fuzzy on the fine print. What matters are the broad strokes.

But is Obama newly vulnerable? I wrote skeptically yesterday about the newly emerging media narrative. But Dan Balz, blogging for The Washington Post, takes it and runs with it:

President Obama may still hold the high ground politically in Washington, but the outlines of an opposition message have suddenly begun to come together. On domestic and foreign policy, Obama's opponents have found cracks in his armor.

The most serious potential problem is a thread that runs through his entire agenda and poses the fundamental question for the domestic side of his presidency. How much more government will Americans tolerate?...

Obama is lucky to have an opposition party that has so many of its own problems. But that will be of only limited comfort to him in the coming months. The public may disapprove of the Republicans, but they can easily start turning against the president if he doesn't deliver what he's promised. Five months after his inauguration, reality is beginning to sink in.

It seems to me you could more easily make the argument that Obama isn't being too daring, he's being too timid -- most recently when it comes to his proposed regulatory overhaul. Steven Pearlstein writes in his Washington Post column:

What does it tell you when banks, investment houses, insurance companies and derivatives traders are so pleased with their regulators that they are prepared to pull out all the stops to keep them?

What it tells me is that the current system of financial regulation has been thoroughly captured by the companies it was meant to restrain -- and that the only way to put things right is to bring in new rules, a new structure and tough new regulators. Anything short of that, and you can almost guarantee that the inmates will be back in charge of the asylum by the time the next bubble starts to develop.

Judged by that standard, the proposals the Obama administration put forward this week to reform the regulatory apparatus were a bit of a disappointment.

And Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column:

Yes, the plan would plug some big holes in regulation. But as described, it wouldn’t end the skewed incentives that made the current crisis inevitable.

Meanwhile, Sam Youngman writes about Obama's speech last night at a big Democratic fundraiser:

[T]he president appeared to be steeling and warning Democratic fundraisers that Republicans were sharpening their attack lines for the midterm elections, a subtle prod to "dig deep" lest they lose control of Congress.

Obama noted that many of the actions that he has taken are "not necessarily popular," and he warned that the criticisms of his administration will only get worse as he takes on more issues.

"But that's the nature of things," Obama said. "This is when the criticism gets louder. This is when the pundits get impatient. This is when the cynicism mounts."

The president dismissed those who say he is not changing the way Washington works, laughing at critics who question whether or not change is possible.

"Can't do it. System overload. Circuits breaking down," Obama said, mimicking a robot. "It's so predictable.

"So this is exactly the moment when we need to fight the hardest. This is the moment when we need to band together."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company