At a policy breakfast this morning hosted by Atlantic Media Company Political Director Ronald Brownstein, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., along with leaders of three left-leaning interest groups, weighed in on what they think should be first on President-elect Obama's agenda, and what may need to be placed on the back burner.
McCaskill said that, prior to the economy's downward spiral, Democrats had hoped to address energy and then health care. But now, she emphasized, it's "the economy, economy, economy and see if we can do something for energy and health care along the way."
The Missouri senator has been friends with Obama for years and was the first female senator to endorse him, after his New Hampshire primary loss to Hillary Rodham Clinton in January. When asked why Obama has brought her into his campaign's inner circle, she noted that she comes from a state where "pragmatism is way more important than what political party you belong to," and that Obama's transition appointments thus far show that he holds a similar view.
When Brownstein probed her on what specific aspects of Obama's agenda he may have to delay in light of the economic conditions, McCaskill stressed that, while she can't speak for the president-elect -- quipping that she would like to remain friends with him -- she thinks "delay may be necessary." On the topic of energy policy, she noted that she was one of the senators who signed on to a letter that said Congress needs to find middle ground on the proposed cap-and-trade legislation, which stalled in the Senate this summer. Warning that energy legislation must be tailored to avoid harming the business climate, she likened the proposed cap-and-trade system to "playing with fire" because the costs would ultimately fall to consumers. Delaying policy changes, McCaskill added, will allow Congress to "find the middle more elegantly," especially on energy.
Debbie Sease, national campaign director for the Sierra Club, disagreed, saying there is a place for a cap-and-trade system early in Obama's first term. "I do think that there is a prospect for getting comprehensive climate legislation," Sease said. "If you do it right -- and that is not a slam-dunk easy thing to do -- but if you do it right, it will be positive for the economy." She said that part of the proceeds from a cap-and-trade system could be invested into green technology and jobs that could help offset the higher initial costs consumers would face.
So how will Obama's first six months as president be measured? It won't be on specific policy measures, McCaskill said. "He understands that the American people are not going to judge him on whether or not health care's gotten done or cap-and-trade's gotten done; they're going to judge him by whether the unemployment numbers look good this time next year."
The 2010 Forecast
The last time the Democrats enjoyed control of both chambers of Congress and the White House was 1994. Brownstein noted that Clinton came into office with margins in both chambers "strikingly similar" to what Democrats are enjoying now. Intraparty squabbling over various parts of Clinton's agenda, however, generated an "image of overall dysfunction" by the time elections rolled around in 1994, helping Republicans gain control of both chambers, Brownstein said.
McCaskill cautioned that, in order to avoid repeating what happened to the Democrats in 1994, Obama and Congress must balance the government's role in reviving the economy: "Finding that very fine path of helping the economy, but not going so far that we get government in the way of business, is the biggest challenge we have." McCaskill is optimistic about 2010, saying that even "modest improvement" in the overall state of the country could help ensure Democrats keep their unified control. "I think we can have a pretty good 2010," she said. "If you look at the races in 2010... there's not a lot of relief in sight for the Republican Party in the Senate side in terms of races that are coming up."
Robert Borosage, president of the liberal Institute for America's Future, acknowledged that "there will be disputes" within the party but said the political landscape is "strikingly different" from 1994. Clinton was elected during a conservative era, he said, while Obama has been "elected at the end of a failed conservative era, the start of what clearly is going to be an era of progressive change." Because of this, Borosage said, Obama will "find it much easier to forge a broad majority."