An entrenched group of Senate Democrats and a staff that lacks governing experience is undermining President Obama's power, says former Democratic National Committee Executive Director Brian Lunde.While Obama has unmatched political PR skills, that won't help him to put, as it were, "lipstick on a pig."
Take Obama's initiative to overhaul health care, he says.
Obama "outsourced his health care policy, deferred to the congressional wing -- and now it's his. And he's now trying to sell something that wasn't his," says Lunde.
But while Lunde believes some of Obama's problems are due to his staff, he thinks the majority of the blame belongs to Democrats in Congress. He notes that the worst thing that happened is that Democrats captured Congress two years before Obama was elected. And he also believes Obama's brief time in the U.S. Senate, and his apparent lack of interest in policy, convinced Democratic senators they could roll him.Lunde has some good advice for Obama. Instead of depending on the House to write the bills and then try and negotiate with the moderates in the Senate to pass as much of the House bill, however radical, as possible, start with the Senate.
"The Democratic congressional wing does not respect President Obama in the area of policy making," he says.
Lunde believes Republicans under Ronald Reagan got the memo, whereas Democrats in Congress still think they are running the show: "When you win the presidency, you just have to become the presidential party," he says.
Citing Carter and even Clinton, Lunde says Democrats are especially susceptible to falling prey to this congressional hegemony. He believes this goes back to their having dominated Congress for 40 years. While presidents came and went, they remained in control for generations.
"So many of the people in Congress right now are Watergate babies," meaning these Democrats were swept into office in 1974. "They are now sub-committee and committee chairs, and you're just not going to tell them what to do. You can't tell Waxman and Markey, 'Don't do this.' They don't care what Obama thinks. It's their time. It's their day," he says.
According to Lunde, Democrats in Congress misread Obama's "change" message. "The word 'change' means different things to a voter and to Henry Waxman. It's not radical policy American's were looking for, it's a breath of fresh air."
Lunde believes Obama has made a strategic mistake by starting with the House, which he says has a "Hollywood and Harvard" mentality. Instead, "you've got to abandon it and begin working with that moderate coalition in the Senate." Lunde suggests Obama could win politically by abandoning liberal attempts at sweeping health care reform, and instead, insist insurance companies no longer be allowed to deny insurance based on pre-existing conditions.The way Congress is set up, it is much easier for the majority party in the House to push through whatever it wants. There aren't the rules that protect the minority party in the House and House members coming from gerrymandered districts tend to be more extreme in the first place. That is why George Washington reportedly called the Senate the saucer that cools the coffee. Presidents would be wiser to build from the center out by starting with the Senate than from the extreme in as a House-based policy establishes. This is especially true when a president is attempting such a massive change as Obama is attempting with health care or energy policies.
Jay Cost had a similar criticism when he wrote earlier this week about the five mistakes that the Democrats had made. Number two was having divided messengers.
Who said this: "[W]hen you have a Senator like Max Baucus helping us make the decisions on a reform health care bill, you're in trouble." It wasn't Jim DeMint. It wasn't John Boehner. It was...John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee!It is probably too late for Obama to change his modus operandi. He and his top aides seem curiously passive when it comes to crafting policy. They excel at the salesmanship aspect of politics. That is important. George W. Bush stunk at it and we saw the results; he eventually lost even Republicans. But that is not all that being president entails.
Ideally speaking, a political party wants to push an issue that unites its side and divides the other side. For some reason, after fifteen years out of power, the Democrats have chosen as their first major legislative push an issue that does exactly the opposite. So it is that the leader of a prominent House committee criticizes the leader of a prominent Senate committee. So it is that liberal groups attack Ben Nelson, who might ultimately be the pivotal vote in the Senate. So it is that after weeks of arm-twisting and deal-making on Energy and Commerce, Henry Waxman still lost five Democrats on his committee (and not all of them were Blue Dogs). The latter implies a not insubstantial number of defections on the House floor. Some of them will be moderate - but there may be liberals voting nay as well. Late last week 57 progressives signed a tartly worded letter to Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Charlie Rangel and George Miller protesting the deal with the Blue Dogs and concluding: "We simply cannot vote for such a proposal." And this is just in the House.
As if the dry economics of public plans and surtaxes were not enough to divide members - there now is a question over whether the House bill subsidizes abortion. Good - as we all know, no issue bridges the political divide quite like abortion!
It's wise advice, even if it comes from a Blue Dog Democrat or a conservative political analyst. President Obama should take heed.