By Alexander Bolton - 10/27/11 09:00 AM EDT
President Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill are increasingly referring to the Congress as “Republican” even though their party controls one-half of the unpopular institution.
Obama and his allies have started to deploy the phrase “Republican Congress” in what some experts see as a clear attempt to gain a political advantage.
“It has to do with the fact that, you know, they’ve made a decision to follow what is a pretty extreme approach to governance,” he said.
And other Democrats have used the term.
“I’m sure the president would like it to be creating jobs more quickly. And if the members of the do-nothing Republican Congress would actually put a couple of oars in the water and help us, [we could] do these things like [Mississippi] Gov. [Haley] Barbour mentioned that make so much sense,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” earlier this month.
Is it a harmless slip of the tongue, or a subtle messaging strategy? Political experts believe it’s the latter.
“I think it’s to convey a message and I think it’s great they’re doing it. There’s so much dissatisfaction in Washington. It’s very important for Democrats to label that dissatisfaction. It’s important to say who’s being the obstructionist and who has real plans,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said, “Democrats are trying to give ownership of Congress to Republicans because the institution is dysfunctional and not addressing the jobs problem, and this is a way to tie blame to the GOP.”
Political scientists have said that Obama is using a game plan similar to that used by Presidents Truman and Clinton. Both won their reelection by railing about Congress. The difference, however, is that both chambers in 1948 and 1996 were controlled by Republicans.
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Washington insiders and those who track politics know that the 112th Congress is divided. But polls taken over the last several years show that many voters are unclear which party runs the House and/or Senate.
Noting that Congress is especially radioactive now, analysts claim the Democratic maneuver could help Obama win reelection despite his sinking job approval rating.
A CBS News/New York Times poll released Monday showed that Congress’s approval rating had dropped to 9 percent for the first time in more than 30 years.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), pushed back against the label “Republican Congress.”
“It’s simply reality: We control one-half of one-third of the federal government. Washington, D.C., is still run by Democrats — and the American people know that,” Steel said.
But Democrats argue their Senate majority counts for little, because Republicans can block legislation with filibusters.
They say Republican control of the House is more important, because the majority has unfettered power in the lower chamber, which has sole authority to initiate tax and spending legislation.
“Democrats aren’t in charge. The House is obviously run by Republicans, and in the Senate, we have 53 Democrats but the system now is set up so that you need 60 votes to do anything,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said in a C-SPAN “Newsmakers” interview that aired Sunday.
Republicans reinforced this view by appearing to dictate the terms of the debt-limit deal after protracted negotiations this summer.
“When you look at this final agreement that we came to with the White House, I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I’m pretty happy,” Boehner crowed in a CBS News interview after striking the deal.
Asked about this statement, Steel reiterated, “We control one-half of one-third of the federal government.”
That hasn’t stopped Democrats, however. “We’ll demand of this Republican Congress to find their moral compass,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said in a CNN interview last month.
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist who served as pollster for Obama’s 2008 campaign, blasted the “Republican Congress” for not making any progress on jobs legislation.
“Over 240 days and this Republican Congress has not put forth one jobs plan,” Belcher told CNN anchor Anderson Cooper last month. Democratic operatives defend Belcher’s choice of words, even though Democrats control the Senate.
“I think the Republican takeover of the House has clearly made John Boehner and [House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor [R-Va.] the face of Congress, and they have done everything to set themselves up as the foil to the president and Democrats in Congress,” said David Di Martino, a former Senate Democratic aide.
Whether the label “Republican Congress” is intentional or a slip of the tongue, Di Martino said it’s accurate.
“The facts are that it’s a Republican Congress,” he said.
“There is no disputing the fact that congressional Republicans have repeatedly blocked the bipartisan, paid-for ideas offered up by the president in the American Jobs Act — even though it’s the only plan before Congress that independent analysts confirm would create jobs right away,” said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.