Wednesday, January 13, 2010

CW Wrong Again

Beyond spin, Obama's productive year Jan. 12: Michael Beschloss, presidential historian for NBC News, talks with Rachel Maddow about how the first year's accomplishments of President Obama rate in the context of typical presidential productivity.

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When it comes to the White House and its relationship with Congress, I tend to think the conventional wisdom is largely right -- President Obama entered office with an ambitious agenda, but institutional hurdles and unprecedented Republican obstructionism led to far fewer first-year victories than the president and his supporters had hoped for.

Hoping to quantify this a bit, Congressional Quarterly did some research, and came to a conclusion that challenges the assumptions.

In his first year in office, President Obama did better even than legendary arm-twister Lyndon Johnson in winning congressional votes on issues where he took a position, a Congressional Quarterly study finds.

The new CQ study gives Obama a higher mark than any other president since it began scoring presidential success rates in Congress more than five decades ago. [...]

All presidents demand specific action by Congress -- or at least they ask for it. But when you look at the votes of 2009 in which Obama made his preference clear, his success rate was unprecedented, according to John Cranford of Congressional Quarterly.

Cranford noted, "[Obama's] success was 96.7 percent on all the votes where we said he had a clear position in both the House and the Senate. That's an extraordinary number." What's more, it's without rival -- in 1965, LBJ's score was 93%.

I suspect some of the president's champions will point to this as an impressive accomplishment, but there's more to it than that. First, the Democratic congressional majorities are unusually large, following spectacular Bush-era Republican failures. Of course a Democratic majority this big is unlikely to pursue an agenda at odds with a Democratic White House.

Second, the score only reflects "success" in the broadest possible way -- the president asked for a bill, and Congress passed it. But that doesn't include compromises that forced changes the president may not have liked. The administration wanted more spending for cash-strapped states in the stimulus package, but Republican moderates forced the measure out. The administration wanted the Senate to pass a health care bill with a public option, but Lieberman and Nelson forced it out. The administration wanted a more robust cap-and-trade bill, but House Dems from industrial states watered it down. Similar concessions and compromises were common throughout the year.

The 96.7% number makes it seem as if Congress simply hands the president everything he's requested on a silver platter. Anyone who's kept their eyes on the Hill lately knows that's not true.

And finally, also note that the legislative success rate doesn't include Senate confirmation of judicial nominees and nominees to a variety of administrative posts. As you may have heard, GOP obstructionism has brought the confirmation process to a halt, with threatened filibusters and ridiculous holds.

Obama's success rate in '09 was impressive, but we're a long way from a rubber-stamp dynamic.

Just a few days ago, the New York Times' Maureen Dowd explained what Americans expect from their president, especially when terrorism is in the news.

Obama's problem, she said, is that while he's inclined to "exert mental and emotional control," it's "not O.K. to be cool about national security when Americans are scared." As Dowd sees it, the president's calm, unflappable demeanor isn't good enough -- he should be "the strong father who protects the home from invaders."

As difficult as this may be to believe, Americans' attitudes and Dowd's impression of Americans' attitudes are not necessarily the same thing. Take the new CNN poll (pdf), for example.

Please tell me whether you agree or disagree that Barack Obama has the personality and leadership qualities a President should have.

Agree 64%
Disagree 35%

As Greg Sargent put it, "Whatever problems the voters have with Obama's policies, his temperament just doesn't seem to an issue for them. They don't seem to want him to flaunt his emotions more or throw his weight around more or treat voters like children. No matter how many times we're told otherwise."

Also note, the same poll found that, despite the hype surrounding the failed Christmas-day plot, the public is less concerned about becoming a victim of terrorism than they were a few months ago.

This comes the same day as a CBS News poll (pdf) that found a 57% of the country approves of the way the president handled the matter.

Dowd's take seemed fairly silly on its face, but public opinion is making her argument appear less insightful, not more.

Ezra Klein: What a difference a black president makes


"Despite the bad economy, blacks' assessments about the state of black progress in America have improved more dramatically during the past two years than at any time in the past quarter century, according to a comprehensive new nationwide Pew Research Center survey on race." More here.

Poll a sign of Afghan optimism Jan. 12: Rachel Maddow relays the results of a poll of Afghans showing a hopefulness for the future.

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