Image: President Obama Joins Harry Reid At Campaign Rally In Las Vegas
Ethan Miller  /  Getty Images file
President Obama rallies supporters of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week in Las Vegas. Reid, facing re-election this fall, has piloted Obama's agenda through the Senate.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 7/16/2010 10:49:28 AM ET 2010-07-16T14:49:28

A landmark health care bill, a mammoth economic stimulus measure, and now with Thursday’s Senate vote, legislation to regulate the financial sector.

It’s success by any standard when a president persuades Congress to pass three marquee pieces of his agenda in just the first 18 months in office.

In addition Congress has passed a “cash for clunkers” bill to encourage car buyers, enacted legislation to make it easier for workers to sue employers for age or sex discrimination, and despite misgivings among rank-and-file Democrats, funded ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet the president's popularity and his party's prospects have dimmed, not soared, with the legislative achievements, muddled by fierce Republican opposition and listless economic growth.

With mid-term elections three months away, and forecasts of heavy Democratic losses in the House and Senate, the likelihood of passing other items on Obama’s menu — immigration reform and a bill to control greenhouse gas emissions — seems doubtful.

And a presidential agenda can be a fragile thing. The BP oil spill has taught Obama what his predecessors had to learn: unexpected events can sideswipe a president’s agenda and redefine the political landscape. 

Obama's historic accomplishments
Obama “has accomplished a huge amount, more than in any other first term since Lyndon Johnson,” said Roger Hickey, co-chairman of the left-of-center advocacy group Campaign for America’s Future.

“But despite the fact that he has accomplished these huge goals, health care and financial reform — with energy legislation a possibility — the public still wants to see economic recovery that actually creates jobs and makes life better,” he said.

Nearly 18 months after the stimulus bill became law, 14.6 million Americans are still seeking work. The long-term jobless — those unemployed for more than 27 weeks — account for nearly half the total.

In a poll last month by the Democratic polling group Democracy Corps, 51 percent of likely voters disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy, and a plurality, 49 percent, agreed with the statement that his policies “have run up a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession or slow the record pace of job losses.”

Obama must “do more to stimulate and create jobs,” Hickey argued. He wants the president to call for Congress to pump money to the states to prevent them from laying off teachers and police officers. Otherwise, Hickey said, “the estimate is that 800,000 or 900,000 jobs could disappear because of the fiscal crisis of the states.”

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He and other progressives support a 1930s New Deal-style jobs program targeting high unemployment parts of the country.

Misreading the mandate?
But Republican pollster Whit Ayres said Obama and his allies fundamentally misread the mandate of the 2008 elections and that misreading in part accounts for dire election prospects for Democrats this November.

“Too many Democrats thought that the 2008 election was an endorsement of a liberal agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Ayres contended. “The 2008 election was a cry for change and a desire to have politicians work together for consensus policies, not to cram through left-wing proposals.”

While Obama has managed to enact big parts of his agenda, “he has succeeded in getting things passed that the majority of Americans don’t want,” especially on health care, said Ayres.

Meanwhile, those on the progressive side of the president’s party criticize him for not acting boldly enough, especially on job creation.

“He has not been willing to think big enough either on financial reform, or on economic recovery generally,” said Robert Kuttner, author of the new book A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama's Promise, Wall Street's Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future.

By the time of Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, bond market investors had made sovereign debt a concern. And it wasn’t just Republicans who seized on the idea that fiscally discredited Greece could be a precursor of a U.S. debt crisis.

“This year we will hit gross debt to GDP (gross domestic product) of just over 90 percent,” Budget Committee chairman Sen. Kent Conrad said at a hearing last February. He cited research by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that indicate when government debt hits 90 percent of GDP, a nation’s economic growth slows and it becomes prey to debt crises.

'The wolf is very fickle'
“The wolf is very fickle and markets can turn very quickly,” Reinhart warned in her Budget Committee testimony. “A high debt level makes us very vulnerable to shifts in sentiments that we cannot predict.”

Seeming to agree with that analysis, Obama appointed a deficit reduction commission headed by a former senator Alan Simpson, a Republican and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.

The deficit commission “simply strengthens the hand of the conservatives who are exaggerating the threat of the debt and who are saying ‘the sky is falling, we can’t do any more job creation, we can’t do any more stimulus,’ ” Hickey complained.

Kuttner said the Obama administration “created a monster” by setting up the Simpson-Bowles panel. Administration officials “are talking out of both sides of their mouths, so the voter does not get a coherent message. Is he (Obama) for recovery, or is he for belt tightening?”

With the outcome uncertain in November, what’s in store for the rest of the president’s agenda in the remaining weeks of this Congress?

What's left on the agenda
Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that he'd include climate change as one component of an energy bill to be introduced in two weeks. (The House passed a bill to curb greenhouse gas emissions last year.)

“I would still rate the probability of passage of some kind of carbon pricing bill as below 50%,” said Kyle Danish, a lawyer and lobbyist specializing in greenhouse gas regulation at the Washington law firm Van Ness Feldman. “A number of factors are working against passage of such a program. The weak economy is probably the most significant.”

He added, “I think there is a certain exhaustion among senators for complex, far-reaching legislation. They already have tackled major bills affecting two enormous sectors of the economy, health care and finance.” 

In addition, while Senate Democratic leaders will narrow the focus of their bill to affect only electric utilities, “they are running out of time to explain the new design and attract support for it.”

On two other high-profile issues, gays serving openly in the military and the closing of the Guantanamo prison, Obama’s promises may not get fulfilled any time soon.

Prospects for Senate repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy look uncertain. And despite Obama's January 2009 executive order pledging Guantanamo would be closed within a year, the prison is still in operation and Republicans resist any effort to relocate Guantanamo detainees to the United States mainland.

One could argue that Obama would not be president were it not for the votes of Latinos who were a significant part of his coalition in 2008 in states such as New Mexico.

An immigration overhaul is a prime goal for many of these Latino Democrats.

But a sweeping overhaul that would include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants seems very unlikely before the November elections, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group.

Sharry said “a near fatal blow” to immigration reform hopes came in January when conservative J.D. Hayworth announced he’d challenge Sen. John McCain in GOP primary in Arizona.

This left McCain, once an advocate of a path to legalization for illegals, politically vulnerable, and sent a message to other Republican senators about the perils of crossing their party's base on the issue.

Sharry said he and other reform advocates accepted the argument that Congress could not take on comprehensive immigration bill until health care reform was passed.

But that took longer than most Democrats expected. It wasn’t until March 23 that the president signed the health care overhaul into law.

By then, the hunger for other major legislation had faded. Obama himself said in April, “There may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue. There's still work that has to be done on energy. Midterms are coming up."

Indeed they are coming up — and congressional Democrats' votes for the president’s agenda will be decisive in the outcome of those elections.

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Video: Midterms a referendum on Obama’s agenda?

  1. Closed captioning of: Midterms a referendum on Obama’s agenda?

    >>> white house press secretary robert gibbs sparked a firestorm this week saying there's enough seats in play in the fall to give republicans control. in our interview in michigan, i asked the president if he's prepared for the midterms to be a referendum on him and his policies.

    >> well, first of all, we have a long ways before the election, number one.

    >> you disagree with robert gibbs ' assessment? enough seats in play?

    >> number two, number two. this is going to be a choice between the policies that got us into this mess and my policy that is are getting us out of this mess and i think if you look at the vast majority of americans , even those who are dissatisfied with the pace of progress, they'll say that the policies that got us into this mess we can't go back to. they understand that. because that i remember that even before the financial crisis , wages were flat lined. jobs were moving overseas and so, now, when they look at holland, michigan, we're seeing jobs move from south korea here to the united states , that's something that gives them a sense of a future, a vision in which america's strong, it is compe competing. we are producing. not just consuming. that's the kind of future i think americans went.

    >> you are prepared for november to be a referendum on your policy and this president?

    >> chuck, you are not listening to me. i'm accountable for the policies i put in place but americans don't have selective memory here. they'll remember the policy that is got us into the mess, as well. and they sure as heck don't want to go back to those.

    >> do you think washington is broken and the reason i ask you this, because when you appointed -- you did the recess appointment of donald hogsett and you know what? the senate process is broken and we got to go around it.

    >> well, what is true is when it comes specifically to appointments, whether it's judges or critical positions in national security , homeland security , fbi, there have been more delays, obstruction and stalling when it comes to just apointing people to run the day-to-day aspects of washington than any president has experienced in history. and, you know, the fact out matter is that i can't play political games with the senate on these issues. ooif got a government to run and at a certain point we have to go ahead and just make sure that people are in place to deal with the enormous challenge that is are ahead.

    >> not ready to say washington 's broken?

    >> well, here's what i'm ready to say. that washington has spent an inordinate amount of time on poll sicks, when's up, who's down and not enough on how are we delivering for the american people ? the good news is that despite no cooperation from the other side, we have over the last two years stopped an economic freefall, stabilize the financial sector , we're on the verge of passing a financial regulatory bill that provides consumers the kind of protection --

    >> probably will be passed by the time people see this.

    >> maybe by the time we land and i get back to washington . a health care bill that not only is going to make sure that everybody has access to coverage, but also, reducing costs. so, when you look at the list of things we have been able to accomplish, it does show that when people are determined and are willing to take tough votes even when it's politically inconvenient, we can get things done.

    >> that must be frustrating. you have had an enormous amount of legislative victories. it is not translated into political capital with the public. is it, honestly, are you frustrated by that?

    >> i'm not frustrated because we were in such a deep hole that even if we got three quarters of the way up out of the hole, even if i know we are going in the right direction, people are still feeling --

    >> think it's all economy?

    >> i do. look. when i -- before i was sworn in, i remember talking to some of my guys and we had just gotten the estimates from the economists about what we might be seeing in terms of not only job losses but economic contraction . i think people would anticipate, you don't have to be a savvy political analyst like chuck todd to say if unemployment is 9.5%, the party in power's going to have some problems regardless of how much progress we have made and how much worse it would be if the other side had been in charge.

    >> two more questions, not about the economy. the terrorist attack in uganda. clearly your administration's taken this al shabab seriously. you have a senior official telling us the operational abilities of that entity out there is maybe stronger than al more mi litarily than we are now?

    >> here's what we've done. a reason that the analyst would say that al qaeda is stronger than yemen is because we have been pretty successful at forcing al qaeda in the mortar regions between afghanistan and pakistan to hunker down. they had been pinned down and it's hard for them to have big operations. we have to keep that pressure up. it is absolutely true, though, that al qaeda in yemen is dangerous and what they've been able to do is not mount huge-scale attacks, but they are successfully recruiting individuals who may carry out low-level attacks.

    >> well, in some ways it's harder because these are people whose names aren't on the list. mu tulla, the guy who tried to blow up the plane over detroit is a classic example of the kind of person that al qaeda and yemen is recruiting. many people are traveling to yemen and getting indoctrinated and then being sent back to the west. and we want to make sure we are entirely on top of it.

    >> they are cooperating with us.

    >> they are cooperating and they have been cooperative but it is a very poor country and its terrain is a little bit like afghanistan 's. they have their own ethnic problems there and, so, this is a tough part of the world, but we are building up capacity, working with them to make sure that we don't take our eye off the ball, even as we continue to put pressure between afghanistan and pakistan.

    >> vacation in the gulf? i know the first lady was down there touting it.

    >> it was beautiful when i went down there. when we were in pensacola, the beached looked as pretty as i have seen. we're going to be trying to figure out where we're going to be able to take some time over the course of the summer and a month of it is going to be taken up with it malia going away for camp and i may shed a tear when she's on the way


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