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Roll Call

Obama’s Retail Sells

Obama Shuns Statements of Administration Policy

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Congressional Democrats are welcoming President Barack Obama’s reliance on retail politics over hardline directives to sell his agenda on Capitol Hill, even though they acknowledge his approach creates greater headaches for them than it does for him.

In his two months in office, Obama has aggressively pursued broad policy changes and ramped up government spending to address the nation’s economic woes. But his administration has only issued one formal Statement of Administration Policy to outline his position, on a largely noncontroversial bill to boost national service programs.

Even though Congress has taken the brunt of public criticism for policy missteps — particularly on the $787 billion economic stimulus and a bill designed to recover executive bonuses handed out by Wall Street bailout recipients — Senators said they were pleased with Obama’s decision to give the Congress room to create the policy.

SAPs outline a president’s position on legislation and often lay out strict parameters for what the administration will accept. They also serve as the vehicle for official presidential veto threats.

“I think the president has done a good job of allowing Congress to be Congress,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said. “It is not the president’s job and it’s not his responsibility, and he has no authority to manage Congress. Now I think he has met with enough people where on almost every issue it’s reasonably clear what the White House believes should be the policy. Sometimes it comes out afterward and sometimes it comes out in advance, but he does a good job communicating.”

Democratic sources close to the White House said the administration is still in the process of trying to decide when it will formally weigh in on legislation and when it wants to give Congressional Democrats a longer leash. But they acknowledge that so far the administration has erred on the side of giving Congress room to run.

One source said the White House wants to make sure that any SAP is “as meaningful as possible and as constructive as possible,” while noting that flooding Congress with SAPs often diminishes their impact.

But in Obama’s first SAP, the administration is unlikely to make any lasting impressions. While the documents are usually used to urge Congress to make changes to legislation, the SAP for the national service bill is effusive in its praise of the measure, repeatedly using words like “pleased” and “applauds” in relation to Congress’ efforts.

In the meantime, Obama has relied on his public statements, bipartisan cocktail parties, private White House meetings with key lawmakers and regular appearances on Capitol Hill to sell his big-ticket items. A White House spokeswoman did not respond to repeated attempts for comment Tuesday.

However, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who was treated to one of those private meetings with the president during the recent stimulus debate, said a lack of a clear direction from the White House could pose problems in the future for Democrats. Snowe said she has privately advised the president to model his coalition-building on Capitol Hill after former Republican President Ronald Reagan, who had to deal with a Democratic-led Congress in the 1980s.

“The president can’t be the caboose on the train. He basically has to be the engine,” said Snowe, a moderate who stands to be a key ally for Democrats and was one of just three Republicans to support the economic stimulus measure. “I think the foundation can be established at the outset as they’re beginning to shape and draft legislation ... not at the end when you have to react to problems that have already been created.”

Snowe said she witnessed that problem on the stimulus bill, when the initial House measure was written with little input from Obama and was roundly criticized for funding programs that were not targeted at creating jobs or resurrecting the economy.

And she said the administration appears to be making a similar mistake on her stalled legislation, which the White House expressed serious reservations about only after the House passed a measure last week, to tax the million-dollar bonuses handed out at American International Group and other financial industry rescue beneficiaries.

“If they’re not going to accept this legislation and they have decided to abandon this type of approach, then they really have an obligation to be proactive and straightforward with what their intentions are with respect to executive compensation,” she said.

Of course, on Wall Street bonuses, the Obama Treasury Department had been very explicit during the stimulus negotiations that it did not want the legislation to affect retention bonus contracts that had already been signed. Congressional Democrats rewrote their language restricting executive compensation at the department’s request, only to be raked over the coals a month later for the change.

When a public furor erupted over the $165 million in bonuses at AIG, Obama and others in his administration initially stoked the outrage on Capitol Hill by calling the payouts outrageous and vowing to recover them on taxpayers’ behalf. But they pulled back later by saying the Congressional solution of getting the money back through punitive taxation was unconstitutional.

A Gallup Poll conducted last week showed that the public blames Congress more than Obama or even Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for the bonus flap.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are still working out the kinks in their new governing relationship.

“You’ve already seen evidence of where there’s a disconnect ... where you’re not sure where they are or you think you know and that’s not accurate,” Casey said. “I’m not sure that as a party in Congress, in conjunction with the party in the White House, so to speak, that we were as well coordinated as we should have been on AIG.”

Casey added that problems with stimulus debate actually brought a mea culpa from the administration. “At one point the White House actually apologized and said we didn’t give you guys enough air cover ... but there was a lot of consultation on the top levels on that and the days leading up to that,” he said.

But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said creating good policy sometimes means taking a hit in the public relations arena and that Obama’s softer approach will ultimately pay dividends.

“In the long run, he will win the public relations battle if the policy is right. I think that’s his long-term strategy,” Whitehouse said. “I think that’s what’s so good about him — he’ll take those short-term public relations hits, knowing they’ll be cured by the right policy down the road, whereas [former President George W.] Bush insisted on everything being ... a public relations win, particularly with his base, and the result was the policy got driven to a place where we became basically ineffective as a country.”

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