This month’s final flurry of legislative successes for President Obama and the Democratic Congress underscores the difficulty of rendering a single verdict on their tumultuous two years in power.
In November, Democrats forfeited control of the House after suffering the largest midterm losses for either party since 1938. They absorbed stinging defeats in the Senate as well. But before that, and to an utterly unexpected extent after that as well, Obama and congressional Democrats passed into law an enormous agenda. This Congress will enter the history books for the magnitude of both its political losses and its legislative victories.
The program that Democrats implemented during Obama’s first two years doesn’t approach the Himalayan peaks of the first congressional sessions for Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. But probably not since Johnson has either party implemented as much of its agenda in a single legislative session as Democrats did in this one. “You probably have to go back to Johnson to see something as substantial as this,” says presidential historian Robert Dallek, a Johnson biographer. Historian Alan Brinkley of Columbia University agrees: “Legislatively, this Congress has probably done more than any Congress since the 1960s.”
Democrats had their legislative disappointments. Mostly because of Senate filibusters, they could not pass limits on carbon emissions, reform the labor laws or the immigration system, or establish a public competitor to private health insurers. Obama felt compelled to accept the extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. Nor could he persuade Congress to back his pledge to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
But the achievements in the ledger’s other column are imposing. Health care and financial-services reform top that list. The 2009 economic-stimulus package contained, by some measures, more net new public investment in education, infrastructure, and clean energy than Bill Clinton achieved during his entire two terms. Other significant wins included bills that restructured and increased college financial aid, toughened pay-equity laws for women, expanded national service, and provided new credit card protections to consumers. This week’s Senate vote approving the New START pact provided Obama a bipartisan foreign policy-victory that steamrolled the opposition of the GOP Senate leadership.
Many of these bills fulfilled long-standing Democratic goals. Presidents of both parties since FDR had pursued comprehensive health care reform; Obama alone signed it into law. The repeal of the Pentagon’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy that Obama signed this week concluded an effort to allow gays to serve openly that dated back to Clinton’s 1992 campaign. Earlier, Obama signed legislation protecting sexual orientation under the hate-crimes law and more closely equalizing the penalties for possession of powder and crack cocaine--in each case implementing changes key Democratic constituencies have likewise sought since the 1990s.
Almost without notice, Obama ended a similar odyssey of even greater consequence. In 1996, Clinton’s Food and Drug Administration asserted the authority to regulate the marketing and sale of tobacco products; in 2000, the Supreme Court said it overreached. Since then, public health advocates had repeatedly failed to pass legislation providing FDA that authority (partly because of Bush’s opposition). Last year, Congress finally approved the bill and Obama signed it. FDA has already banned candy-flavored cigarettes and proposed to strengthen health warning labels. “That was the most significant legislative action that the Congress has [ever] taken with regard to tobacco,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
Why didn’t this record provide Democrats more defense against the wave that capsized their House majority? One (smaller) reason is that the interminable struggle over health care overshadowed much of it. More important, conservatives, and even many independents, recoiled from the cumulative scale and cost of these initiatives at a time of economic unease. Most important, as the downturn lingered, the Democrats’ agenda appeared incapable of, and even tangential to, creating jobs, the public’s main concern. Many of the Democrats’ priorities “didn’t seem relevant to what the public was struggling with,” says lobbyist Vic Fazio, the former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
One other factor contributed. Democrats passed such a comprehensive agenda largely because they achieved near-parliamentary levels of party unity in Congress. That focus on uniting Democrats was probably unavoidable given lockstep Republican opposition, but it produced a kind of myopia. On the biggest issues--health care and stimulus--Democrats spoke mostly to each other and never attracted enough public support beyond their core coalition.
All of these factors converged to ignite a fierce backlash against Democrats in the midterm election. If that recoil carries a Republican past Obama in 2012 as well, many of the Democratic legislative achievements could be uprooted. But if Obama wins a second term, he could instead institutionalize his key reforms. The huge federal deficit, and growing Republican strength in Congress, virtually ensures that the Democrats’ latest tide of Washington activism has already crested. Yet, if Obama can steer a course to a second term, the powerful imprint of that surge might endure.