I missed an interesting part of the Politico story on the feuds between Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama, between House and Senate Democrats, and between Capitol Hill and Obama’s team in the White House, but IBD’s Sean Higgins notices that unnamed House Democrats have an interesting theory about Obama’s disconnect from their leadership. Anonymous Democrats on Capitol Hill speculate that Barack Obama might benefit in 2012 from Republicans taking over the House — and that Obama may already be strategizing to let them do it:
One Democratic official … (said) some Democratic House members actually believe that the White House “wouldn’t mind having a foil, and that foil is a Republican (House) majority — that would serve their political purposes going into 2012.”
These House Democrats say privately that veterans of Bill Clinton’s administration working in Obama’s White House may think having a Republican majority in Congress will help Obama win re-election, as it did Clinton in 1996. House Democrats know that Obama will do whatever it takes to win re-election, whether or not it helps members keep their seats this year.
David Axelrod felt compelled to respond to that by calling it “not based in reality,” rather than ignoring it, which means that the theory must be getting around enough for the White House to feel compelled to squelch it. Higgins thinks it through:
Nevertheless, political experts have long noted that presidents tend to do best when the opposition party holds Congress and struggle when their parties have the majority. Jimmy Carter struggled despite Democratic domination of Congress, while Ronald Reagan thrived in the same environment. Bill Clinton stumbled when his party controlled Congress but regained his footing after the GOP takeover of 1994. George W. Bush’s having a GOP-led Congress for most of his term did not help him pass Social Security or immigration reform, etc.
The problem appears to be that one-party control creates unrealistically high expectations from supporters that anything can be done. In reality, even a small minority can often block action in Congress. The Founding Fathers intended the system to work this way. It also makes the victories by the minority party in stymieing the president’s agenda seem like an even bigger deal. To put things in perspective, today’s frustrated Democrats were yesterday’s proud gridlockers stopping Bush’s Social Security reform.
On the other hand, having the opposition party in control of Congress not only gives the president a foil to play against, but it eases the pressure on him to pass anything big for his own base. They know not to expect as much.
That presumes that the keys to Carter’s mediocrity, Reagan’s genius, and Clinton’s skill depended on having hostile or friendly Congresses. At best, their relationship with Congress was secondary to their own innate talents as leaders. Having an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress did not make Carter a mediocrity, but it certainly highlighted it more. Clinton blew the first two years of his presidency in an attempt to impose a government-run health care system on a nation that didn’t want it — a lesson Obama very clearly didn’t learn — but had the political talent and survival instinct to move to the center-right and co-opt the Republican agenda. Reagan succeeded with a Democratic Congress, but he clearly wanted to make cuts to federal government and devolve power to the states, an agenda thwarted by the lack of GOP control on Capitol Hill.
A Republican Congress would give Obama one advantage, which is that he could put himself in virtual campaign mode for the two years leading up to his re-election campaign. If the Republicans took the House but could not produce sweeping legislation (at least the sweeping legislation that Obama assumes people want), he could spend 2011 and most of 2012 nagging the GOP and blaming them for whatever ills the nation felt.
However, Obama spent all of 2009 stuck in campaign mode, hardly bothering to involve himself in the governing process at all. He certainly didn’t involve himself in the legislative process for his own agenda while his party held commanding majorities in both chambers of Congress, a point made by Al Franken and other Senate Democrats in a contentious internal meeting this week. The result of his campaign presidency: a steep decline in the polls for both himself and his party, and an agenda stuck on Item 2 for almost a year.
That doesn’t mean that Obama hasn’t decided to throw the entire Democratic Party under the bus in an attempt to improve his chance to win a second term in 2012. As strategies go, though, it seems pretty desperate — but the fact that his own allies in the House have begun to wonder whether Obama is deliberately trying to make them lose shows that his strategies have turned out to be pretty incompetent up to now.