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Obama vs. Congress: Good Re-election Strategy for President?

January 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In nearly every appearance these days, President Obama has urged Congress to act. In fact, criticizing congressional inaction has become a key part of his re-election strategy. Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports on the president's attempt to capitalize on political gridlock in Washington.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And while Republicans fight it out in Florida, President Obama is, for now, waging his campaign against Congress and the stalemate in Washington.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: It’s a theme President Obama hits in nearly every appearance these days, urging Congress to act, as he did today in Las Vegas.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Your voices convinced Congress to extend this middle-class tax cut before. I need your help to make sure they do it again, no drama, no delay. Let’s just get this done.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, criticizing the inaction of Congress apparently has become a key part of the Obama reelection strategy. He first laid out the theme last October, pushing his jobs bill.

BARACK OBAMA: The question then is: Will Congress do something?

If Congress does something, then I can’t run against a do-nothing Congress. If Congress does nothing, then it’s not a matter of me running against them. I think the American people will run them out of town because they are frustrated and they know we need to do some — something big and something bold.

KWAME HOLMAN: The confrontation pits the president squarely against Republicans, who now control the House and have the votes to block his proposals in the Senate.

They went toe to toe with Mr. Obama last summer over raising the federal debt ceiling, and later over extending the payroll tax break and long-term unemployment benefits. Those measures passed, but much of the rest of the president’s agenda has languished.

And the battle has taken a toll on Congress’ public approval rating. It stood at just 13 percent in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.

The Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, says it is no surprise.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: I understand why the American people look at Congress and shake their head, what is this all about, because we have not been able to accomplish things the American people think they need and deserve. And we can’t do it because this has been the most obstructive year of Congress that I can imagine, and I have been in a lot of Congresses.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the leader of the Senate’s powerful minority, Republican Mitch McConnell, argues the Congress is not solely to blame.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were confronted with the same situation, where they had a Congress that wouldn’t give them everything they wanted, and they managed to lead and to reach agreements and to be successful. This president has chosen to play the blame game.

KWAME HOLMAN: With an election coming up and relations between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue as strained as ever, President Obama appears to be borrowing some language from another Democratic president in an era of divided government.

Norman Ornstein is with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: The phrase do-nothing Congress was coined by Harry Truman in 1948. He ran against the famous 80th Congress, famous because it was the do-nothing Republican Congress.

The irony in 1948 is, the 80th Congress was actually an extraordinarily productive and meaningful Congress. The 80th do-nothing Congress gave us the Marshall Plan, which transformed the world for a half-century.

KWAME HOLMAN: As Senate Democratic Leader Reid sees it, the problem of inaction stands out clearly when this Congress is compared to the last one, in which Democrats controlled both chambers.

SEN. HARRY REID: We had the most productive Congress in the history of the country. Some say only the most productive in the last 75 years, but a very productive Congress the last Congress.

KWAME HOLMAN: That Congress, the 111th, passed 383 bills that were signed by the president, including the economic stimulus, and both health care and Wall Street reforms.

The first session of the 112th Congress, which began a year ago, has enacted 90 laws so far, mostly housekeeping measures extending current laws and naming federal buildings.

Over the weekend, the Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, stood by those numbers on “FOX News Sunday.”

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: Is the measure of the job the Congress does the number of laws that we passed?

CHRIS WALLACE, “Fox News Sunday”: It’s a measure.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: No, it isn’t. Most Americans think we have got too many laws already.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, giving the response to the State of the Union address, said House Republicans in particular have tried to do more, only to be stonewalled.

GOV. MITCH DANIELS, R-Ind.: They — and they alone — have passed bills to reduce borrowing, reform entitlements, and encourage new job creation, only to be shot down time and time again by the president and his Democratic Senate allies.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Obama has run against Congress before. During the 2010 midterm elections, he consistently cited what he called Republican obstructionism.

BARACK OBAMA: Here, you got folks driving the car in the ditch, and then we’re out there in the mud, pulling the car out of the ditch, and they’re sitting there, comfortable, drinking on a Slurpee or something.

(LAUGHTER)

BARACK OBAMA: So then we finally get the car out of the ditch, and they want the keys back.

(LAUGHTER)

BARACK OBAMA: Say, no, you can’t have the keys.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

KWAME HOLMAN: American voters saw it differently and handed the keys to Republicans.

Again, the AEI’s Ornstein.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: What the Republicans took out of their massive victory — and it was a massive victory — was, now we should unite even more, stop Obama in his tracks, and reverse all of the policies enacted in his first two years.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Ornstein says, this time, campaigning against Congress may induce Republican leaders to switch tacks.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Ironically, as Obama ratchets up the rhetoric and the heat and uses what is a powerful presidential bully pulpit to say, it’s their fault if they don’t go along, that may increase the chances that you’ll get some more deals.

Mitch McConnell, in the end, is not some crazy, nutcase, right-wing ideologue. More than anything else, he is a tough-minded conservative pragmatist who wants to win and, more important, doesn’t want to lose.

KWAME HOLMAN: Publicly, at least, the Senate minority leader says the onus is on the president to show things can work in Washington.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: We’ve certainly had, as I indicated earlier, lost opportunities in 2011, opportunities the president had to lead. It would have made him look better. He doesn’t look all that good either. And Congress as an institution is not going to be on the ballot. He is.

KWAME HOLMAN: And with that in mind, the president is visiting a series of battleground states this week, including Colorado, where voters such as these have a decidedly jaundiced view of the national legislature.

TONY LADNER, Colorado: You can get rid of the people that aren’t getting anything done and replace them with other people that won’t get it done. I don’t know how you fix it.

TINA OBERMEIER, Colorado: I blame both Republicans and the Democrats. I happen to be a Democrat, but I’m as unhappy with the Democrats as I am with the Republicans.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president will take his critique of Congress on the road again tomorrow in another key state, Michigan.