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Is Obama Too Weak in Dealing With Congress?

An interesting theme has emerged in the past couple of weeks from analysts, described succinctly in a recent column by Clive Crook of the Financial Times: “Obama Is Choosing to Be Weak.” The Crook thesis is that by delegating so much authority to Congress, President Barack Obama is first encouraging the creation and passage of truly bad legislation, starting with the climate change bill that passed the House before the recess, and moving to the health reform bill slowly taking shape on Capitol Hill.

To Crook, Obama is wasting the talent he has brought to his administration, since officials are spending more time working the phones to build support for the crummy bills emerging in Congress than crafting good policy. But the greatest waste, he argues, is the president himself — choosing not to take his standing with the country to go over the heads of Members of Congress and tell them why they need to support something stronger and better.

Crook is not alone. The unease about the compromises on Capitol Hill extends to E.J. Dionne, among others. For Dionne, who starts with more sympathy for Obama’s political context, there is fear especially that the kinds of compromises that Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) will come up with will end up leading to too many concessions, and to a health plan so watered down that it will undermine the long-term goals of covering everybody and containing costs. He ends a recent column with a plea to the president to weigh in forcefully: “He should toughen Baucus’ negotiating strategy, and he’ll have to mediate among liberals. He doesn’t need stone tablets, just an iron will.”

Dionne continued this theme with another column, this time about a president with high public approval, strong standing in his own party and a weakened and divided Republican opposition, who also has to contend with Senate moderates worried about budget deficits and burgeoning debt who are constraining the ability to do major health reform.

These points are all well-taken. The major bills emerging in Congress are crazy-quilt compromises, not carefully designed and intricate policy webs that would emerge from the talented policy wonks in the White House. These are not bills that are bold enough to move us dramatically toward solutions to vexing long-term problems, or even ones that are close to being what an ideal Congress is capable of crafting.

Consider climate change. If I were able to dictate policy, I would do something very simple: Enact a carbon tax to replace the payroll tax. Start taxing something we want to discourage, and stop taxing something we want to enhance. But the chances of finding majorities for something that sweeping are slim to none, and slim just left the building.

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