Analysis: July has been disaster for Obama, Hill Dems

The Obama administration, which was flying high a month ago after pushing through a climate change bill in the House, has since been dealt a series of setbacks and is struggling to regain its footing.

After the climate bill passed 219-212 on the afternoon of June 26, there was a feeling that the White House could get much of its agenda through Congress in 2009.

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A month later, there are doubts that President Obama will even achieve his No. 1 priority of healthcare reform, much less cap-and-trade, immigration reform and a regulatory revamp of the financial sector.

Since late June — when Democrats defied conventional wisdom and passed the climate bill by their self-imposed deadline — the stubborn realities of Washington have blunted and possibly even derailed the president's signature domestic efforts.

The White House is frantically working to get healthcare reform back on track after missed deadlines in August. Obama had initially said he wanted both chambers to pass legislation by the August recess and sign a bill by Oct. 15. He now says he wants to enact healthcare reform by the end of the year.

And while the president continues to put his critics "on notice," targeting GOP lawmakers, the Republicans are quick to note the obvious — Obama has comfortable majorities in both the House and Senate.

Obama enjoyed immediate successes in office, signing into law his $787 billion stimulus package in just 28 days. He also helped shepherd a pay equity measure and a children’s healthcare bill through Congress.

But in the past few months, as unemployment rates have spiked, Republicans have increasingly found traction in lambasting Obama’s agenda and fanning the flames of division within the Democratic Party. Obama did score a significant victory last week on eliminating Senate funding for F-22 fighter jets, but the triumph was overshadowed by Democratic infighting on healthcare.

Despite a number of former Democratic members and aides working in the Obama administration, Democrats on Capitol Hill have grown bolder in defying their party leader. Many centrist Democrats are worried that Republicans will have the upper hand in the 2010 elections.

Paul Light, an expert on the presidency and a professor at New York University, said the president's problems with Capitol Hill reflect "a miscalculation by the Obama administration on how political capital gets spent in Washington."

Light said that capital, even for a president who enjoys immense personal popular support like Obama, is spent a bit at a time on each initiative or piece of legislation.

"I think the Obama administration has been spending political capital at roughly the same rate the federal government spends money," Light said. "Eventually, it runs out."

Light quoted President Lyndon Johnson, who said that "if you don't get it done in six months, you're not going to get it done."

One of the reasons Obama has spent so much capital, aside from his ambitious agenda, has been his willingness to cede so much control to Congress, Light said.

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While lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are allies of the president, his political capital is not necessarily a priority of theirs.

To that end, Light says, Obama has made a mistake in making Pelosi his "broker," spending his political capital but not always to his benefit.

The other misstep that has bogged down the administration on healthcare specifically is Obama's inability to communicate effectively to the American people, Light said.

While it is shocking to consider that Obama is anything less than one of the best communicators in modern political history, when it comes to healthcare, he simply has not been able to make the sell to people who do have health insurance.

And Wednesday night's primetime press conference was a "disaster," Light said.

Light said that for the president to regain political momentum, he needs to reclaim his agenda from Congress and start connecting with the public.

"He needs to take this over and own it," Light said.