Legislator-in-Chief Faces Challenges in Changing Times
By Khan Shoieb '13
The Democrats will lose control of the House and possibly the Senate next week. This much is clear. What is less clear, and profoundly befuddling, is why so many have been hailing this prospect as a blessing for the Obama presidency.

There is the cautiously optimistic: “In Losing the Midterms, There May Be Winning,” read Peter Baker’s headline this weekend in The Times.

There is the flawed advocacy: “Democrats would be in better shape, and would accomplish more, with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive caucus,” wrote Ari Berman, a contributor at The Nation.

And there is the downright stupid: “The best possible result for Obama politically is for the Republicans to gain control of both houses … that’s what Obama should want,” said Douglas Schoen, a Democratic pollster.

It is likely that this sentiment has been making its rounds through the blogosphere because of a delusional, last-ditch attempt by liberals to conjure a silver lining out of the debacle that will inevitably be the midterm elections. This is due to the fact that a Republican House will mean that the politically ambitious Darrel Issa (R-Calif.), as Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, would be able to use his subpoena power to perpetually irritate the administration, a Republican chamber of Congress will give the party numerous procedural powers that can be used to significantly curtail Obama’s legislative agenda and newly erected regulatory regime.

Premised on the reading that President Clinton’s first term was salvaged due to a similar midterm overhaul, many Democrats believe that a change in House leadership will guide President Obama to a 2012 victory.

But history never precisely repeats itself. These are different times, and there is good reason to doubt that the advantages Clinton garnered from having a foil in government and forcing the opposition to come up with a plan of governance will also apply to Obama’s situation.

Obama’s presidency has from its inception defined itself in legislative terms; “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, is notoriously quoted as saying.

So whether it was the urgency of the moment — the necessity, after years of delay, of confronting the issues that kept one foot stuck in the 20th century — or whether it was a politically opportunistic administration capitalizing on fear, the new White House most certainly did not let the Great Recession go to waste. Obama sensed a responsibility to think simultaneously in the short and long term, to think about how both to extricate the country from the pitfalls of the current recession and lay the foundation for the America we all envisage in 2050.

Accordingly, he set out to surround himself with Washington “insiders.” Rahm, Biden, Daschle and Messina — these were the well-known, well-connected legislative movers and shakers of D.C., who knew how to get a bill past the committee, through Congress and onto Obama’s desk. They would be able to, as another Rahm saying goes, “get points on the board.” Rather than waste time waiting for a neophyte staff to learn the ropes, Obama sought paradoxically to embrace the epitome of the Washington culture in order to change it.

And like it or not, it was change. Rarely has a president played such a prominent role in setting and executing the agenda of Congress — and rarely has a president passed such historic legislation by his first midterm cycle. Presidents are by their nature concerned with ideas, movements and slogans. Unlike Obama, they strive to find a place above the Congressional fray, to engineer the national atmosphere rather than descend into the sausage factory.

And thus Obama’s greatest asset has become his Achilles’ heel. He is an agent of change, but in more practical terms than any of us anticipated. He too is a man of ideas, but his ideas seek consequences. He refuses to shirk the responsibilities of the role he has assumed as legislator-in-chief. Education reform, deficit reduction and climate change are on the table, waiting to be addressed, regardless of whether Speaker Pelosi holds on to the gavel.

“Over the next two years do I take a pass on tough stuff? The answer is no,” said Obama earlier this month.

President Clinton’s famed “triangulation” strategy of moving to the political center post-midterms and circumscribing his legislative agenda will not do for Obama. We live in a different age, where the need for immigration, education, energy and deficit reform cannot afford to wait in the name of politics. The contingencies that enabled Clinton to adopt his strategy simply do not exist today.

Alas, elections are not ends in themselves. Democrats should be wary of adopting the kind of logic that they themselves persistently decried during the Bush era. If what they worry about is reforming America, Bloody Tuesday has no silver lining.

Issue 07, Submitted 2010-10-27 04:16:54