Obama Must Hope He Doesn’t Suffer Jim Zorn’s Fate
Last year was a disappointing one for the Washington Redskins, and especially for the team’s recently fired head coach, Jim Zorn. The team notched few meaningful victories, giving Washingtonians little to cheer about. In fact, the Redskins’ season was a lot like last year for President Barack Obama and Congress: What began as a year with strong promise ended with little accomplished.[IMGCAP(1)]Zorn’s troubles have been well-documented as the Redskins were dismal under his leadership. Similarly, a great deal of the blame for the government’s largely wasted year belongs with Obama. The president’s lack of precise leadership in setting out a first-year legislative agenda, play-calling, if you will, did more to muddle Congress than anything Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did or did not do.By raw output of bills, Congress performed respectably in 2009, but there are a lot of post offices to be named and nonbinding statements to be ratified, so by itself this is a useless number, similar to analyzing player statistics on a last-place football team. The better indicator is substantive legislation, and even a cursory glance at the 2009 ledger reveals a clear lack of key bills that were signed into law last year:The Lilly Ledbetter Act; the $800 billion stimulus; the hate crimes bill; the Cash for Clunkers program; the bank bailout; and a toothless mortgage bill.These bills expose a compelling indictment of an unproductive Congress, not unlike Zorn’s victories over poor teams. Only the stimulus plan and the bank bailout can be fairly called major initiatives, with the latter extremely unpopular and in retrospect, arguably unnecessary.The inability of Congress to clear larger initiatives, including those on Democratic wish lists, can be traced both to a lack of majority support for passage in Congress for some of these bills and the absence of consistent, driving leadership from the White House.The cap-and-trade bill is perhaps the best example of this. Over the summer, the House narrowly passed environmental legislation pleasing to the Democrats’ base and strongly desired by Pelosi and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).Obama should have prevented the House from taking up cap-and-trade. It never had a chance of passing the Senate, and thus needlessly exposed vulnerable Members to a tough vote. A misreading of the president’s then-high poll numbers likely led the White House to push a poor strategy. Cap-and-trade bogged down Congress, holding up any movement on Obama’s proclaimed No. 1 priority: health care.The House’s passage of the bill may have been momentarily satisfying, but it was only symbolic and it needlessly inflamed partisan passions and made Members less likely to commit their hearts toward the draining surgery of another long legislative fight before 2010.Despite its institutional prestige, when they are of the same party, Congress is a vessel of the president, carrying out his agenda much like a quarterback runs the plays called by the coach. In 2009, the president showed himself to be an ineffective head coach.When Obama came into office, his cool demeanor was soothing to weary voters, much in the same way that Zorn’s was to fans who were sick of losing. But by itself, Zorn’s personality was a weak balm to getting his players to perform and Obama’s personality was poorly suited to moving legislation.Obama believed that President Bill Clinton’s health care plan failed because Clinton dropped a bill in Congress’ lap and did not take enough steps to allow headstrong Members the chance to contribute. Consequently, Obama took the opposite approach and basically allowed Congress to cook up the bill from scratch with its own ingredients.Obama’s course of action was misguided, if not as damaging as Clinton’s behavior. Congress needs direction from the president. While they are coequal branches, Congress speaks ploddingly through 535 perspectives while the White House has one voice.Obama should have come to Congress with a set of guiding ideas of what he wanted in a reform package and a sense of urgency. This would have both given prideful legislators room to craft a bill in a way that Clinton did not cede in 1994 while at the same time controlling the parameters of the debate. Instead, Obama sat on the sidelines while Members ran in countless directions and frittered away valuable months.It is hard to minimize what the passage of health care reform means. It is a goal that has eluded all of Obama’s modern-day predecessors, and regardless of whether one supports it, the bill will remake health care in this country.But frankly, the passage of some kind of reform was inevitable once the process began: With 60 votes in the Senate, Obama and his advisers have long known that the failure to pass any bill would be far worse politically than a mediocre bill being signed into law, so the drama on reform’s final passage has always been a bit contrived.The larger issue is that with complete control of the House and 60 votes in the Senate, the president was not been nearly as productive as he could have been given his enormous institutional advantages upon coming into office. This will remain true even after the president holds an elaborate ceremony to sign health care reform into law. But should Democrats lose Tuesday’s special Senate election in Massachusetts to determine a replacement for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) — which now appears likely — that defeat could block not just the passage of any health care reform, but imperil much of Obama’s agenda in 2010.The Redskins’ season has already cost Jim Zorn his job. On more serious matters, Congress’s 2009 set back Obama’s agenda, in some respects irreparably, and it will likely lead many Democratic legislators to be voted out. It has perhaps even set the stage for Obama to lose his own job in 2012.But thankfully for the president, unlike in the unpredictable world of a pro football coach’s tenure, he has at least another guaranteed three years to improve his record.Mark Greenbaum is a writer and attorney in Washington, D.C., and a frequent contributor to Roll Call.