After six years in the White House, it is not unfair to say that President Obama is politically inept in his relationship with Congress. If he thinks he has been having trouble dealing with recalcitrant Republicans on the Hill, what will he do in the last two years of his term if, as predicted, in November’s off-year elections the Republicans hold onto and build their majority in the House of Representatives and take over the Senate?
Even among his allies and supporters there is dismay over his recent nominations for Senate confirmation, such as Debo P. Adegbile, to head the Justice Department’s civil rights decision. He was resoundingly rejected by the Senate, with several Democrats joining the Republican opposition. There was intense criticism of Adegbile’s involvement in the legal appeals of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence without parole for killing a Philadelphia police officer.
With that defeat still stinging, the president turned around and nominated Vivek H. Murthy, a doctor with impeccable credentials (an internist and emergency room doctor educated at Harvard and Yale Universities) to be Surgeon General. Credentials aside, Murthy is an outspoken advocate for gun control. His position may be one that a growing number of Americans support, but it stirred up the National Rifle Association which is bringing out its big guns threatening the political careers of any senator who votes to confirm Murthy. And the NRA is to be feared -- it has destroyed the careers of any number of political leaders deemed supportive of any kind of gun control legislation, no matter how insignificant.
This is an important election year for the White House, and it has been predicted that as many as eight Democratic party senators, facing tough reelections, will abandon Obama’s nomination of Murthy. This raises an obvious question: if Obama seems to be oblivious of the political realities, is there no one at the White House who can say, “Wait a minute, let’s think hard about the ramifications of these nominations?” Both nominees are men of significant accomplishment who probably deserve consideration for higher office, but this is an election year. Is it worth losing a losing another fight on Capitol Hill?
Politics is a wonderfully, complicated art form. There are times when a president has to give up what he wants to achieve what is possible. And this year, Obama needs to become engaged in working to save his majority in the Senate. Where are the adult advisors in the White House who must know how frustrated fellow Democrats on the Hill are with what they perceive to be a lack of understanding and support from their party’s leader? The recent death of the masterful political operative and adviser to presidents, Bob Strauss, was a reminded of the kind of adviser Obama desperately needs.
As in most White Houses, this one also isolates itself in a protective bubble, with a “them vs. us” attitude. That, coupled with a president who is perceived as being intellectually arrogant with diminishing favorability ratings, seems to be leading his party into a political disaster in November. This White House staff is also too narrowly made up of graduates of the more elite Eastern schools who arrogantly believe they know what is best for the nation.
It is perhaps unfair to compare Obama with masterful politicians like Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, not to mention Franklin Roosevelt. Each historical period is different, but it is hard to believe that any of those presidents who loved and understood the political game and knew how to work with the Hill, would unnecessarily create a situation that would threaten the careers of colleagues in their own party, especially in a tight election year.
There are more than eight months before the elections and anything can and will happen to alter the political equations, but if Obama continues to ignore the gathering political storm, the president and his party will find only frustration and an inability to accomplish much of anything in the final two years of his Administration.
Conconi is a veteran Washington journalist and the host of the internet public affairs program Focus Washington. www.focuswashington