Some presidents, like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, gave the impression of being born under a lucky star. Others, like Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter, can’t seem to catch a break.
To be sure, a good many of the problems that have plagued President Obama over the past 18 months he and his team brought upon themselves. There was Eric Holder’s initial plan to put on trial officials in the U.S. government who practiced enhanced interrogation techniques they were told were legal at the time. There was Holder’s ill-conceived attempt to bring Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, to trial in New York. There was the president’s interjecting himself into a spat between an African-American Harvard professor and the Cambridge policeman. There was the controversy surrounding former White House green jobs czar Van Jones, who had voiced support for some of the most outrageous 9/11 conspiracy theories. There was Holder’s (yes, him again) decision not to bring the New Black Panther Party to trial for voter intimidation. There was the administration’s pressing for an unpopular healthcare plan and its incessant attempts to invalidate an Arizona law of which the public approves by wide margins. And who can forget the administration’s firing of former political appointee Shirley Sherrod on the basis of an aired but misleading tape, of remarks she had made before ascertaining the facts?
Obama was also laid low by catastrophes over which he had no control.
Color the biggest of these the oil spill in the Gulf, for which the media decided he had to be held accountable. The president, who complains about the cable television culture, yielded to its demands.
In that instance, he dutifully attempted to show anger and feigned compassion.
Now he and his party are plagued by two well-publicized congressional ethics cases involving two veteran members of Congress, both African-Americans, neither of whom share even Obama’s voiced interest in changing the Washington culture or did much to advance his career.
Together the federalist system (which allows state governments to draw congressional districts), the separation of powers, and House rules assure that a president cannot do much to discipline wayward members of Congress. Such truisms, however, did not insulate Bill Clinton or his agenda from the myriad of scandals history remembers as “the House Bank,” “the House Post Office,” and “Daniel Rostenkowski” (Rangel’s Ways and Means Committee predecessor who went to prison for ethical violations jurors decided were also criminal). When it comes to voters expressing their anger in off-year elections, presidents and their fellow partisans on Capitol Hill have been joined at the hip.
Obama may be particularly susceptible to this phenomenon because of the manner in which he approached Congress from the get-go. Whereas Clinton reached out for Republican votes to enact NAFTA (with “progressive” elements of his party opposed, he needed the GOP in order to pass it), Obama chose to work primarily through Democrats.
After giving lip-service to his concept of “bipartisanship,” his preferred method was to let the congressional leadership bring Democrats into line and “cherry pick” additional Senate votes from an Arlen Specter (when he was still a Republican), a gracious lady from Maine, and a Scott Brown. [See who supports Brown.]
In a Faustian bargain that has come back to haunt them, Democrats relied on Rangel and Maxwell to help keep wavering legislators in line. Tangling with them earlier might have put the president’s program in jeopardy, as ethically challenged members of Congress, hoping for assurances of leniency, withheld their support. Once Congress went on break and that possibility diminished, Democrats decided not only to act, but also seek credit for cleaning up the culture in Washington. (Talk about adding insult to injury.)
Rangel’s multiple ethics problems (he faces 13 counts of violations) had been a sword of Damocles hanging over the Democrats’ head for nearly two years. Yet, Speaker Nancy Pelosi stuck by the beleaguered Ways & Means Committee chairman until very recently. And only now President Obama calls upon the Harlem Democrat to end his career with dignity.
While not entirely unexpected, the Waters allegations and her decision to follow Rangel’s example and face a full (and well-publicized) trial hit Congress with a force comparable to the arrival of a meteor. The two trials will occur after Congress reconvenes in the fall and at the height of a campaign in which Democrats already expect to lose considerable seats. Supporters of the two senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus assert that the charges against them are racially motivated. This secondary controversy does not auger well for Democratic Party unity. Meanwhile, Republicans can be certain to cite the pending trials as further evidence of Democrats’ failing to make good on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pledge to “drain the swamp” of Washington and congressional corruption.
With Obama bound to suffer however these cases are decided, he could help shield himself from some of their collateral damage by citing them as further evidence of the need for congressional reform. A president who was a true change agent might say that such are the results of a system that all but rendered elected officials impervious to all checks against corruption the framers hoped would entice legislators to act in the public’s interest rather than in their own.
He could chastise practices that allow state partisans to draw uncompetitive seats, congress to award chairmanships to senior members confident of their continual reelection, campaign fundraising, and spending rules that allow committee chairmen and prospective big wigs to raise funds they do not need and from interests that have business before their committees and disperse them to colleagues in exchange for continued peer support in internal House and Senate leadership and other races. A president who actually did that would do more than turn the national conversation away from his failings. He could set in motion forces that may actually make the American system of government less dysfunctional. I won’t be holding my breath.