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Does Obama Have the ‘Juice’ to Influence Congress?

Surely it was the first time the word “juice” was used in a presidential press conference to mean political clout. And maybe ever. After reciting a few of Mr. Obama’s recent legislative disappointments, ABC’s Jonathan Karl looked the president in the eye: “So my question to you is, do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?”

Mr. Obama shot back with self-deprecating humor: “If you put it that way, Jonathan — maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly. I think it’s a little — as Mark Twain said, rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point.”

But as his answer wore on, it was clear a nerve had been struck: “I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common sense solutions. I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can rally the American people around those common-sense solutions. But ultimately, they, themselves, are going to have to say, we want to do the right thing.”

In fact, the president has run into a torrent of opposition in recent months — on spending, on taxes, and perhaps most personally disappointing for him, on a gun control measure that aimed to expand background checks for people buying firearms online or at gun shows. Every outcome has had a different set of forces at play and a different set of constituencies. And there are predictions of coming success on immigration reform. Still it is striking that only three months into his second term, after an election he won by an impressive margin (the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win election and re-election by a margin greater than 4 points), that Mr. Obama faces questions about how weak he is.

But every other president I’ve covered has also struggled with a recalcitrant Congress. According to Congressional Quarterly, Bill Clinton’s success rate on House of Representatives floor votes from 1995-2000 was among the lowest for presidents who have faced divided government in the post-War era. President George H. W. Bush cooperated with Democrats on measures to raise taxes, and so faced some of his most difficult opposition from his own Republican party.

In an article comparing President George W. Bush’s connection to Congress with that of President Reagan, the Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote in 2004: “… Bush has had a more distant relationship with Congress. Reagan developed friendships with two powerful Democrats, one of them House Speaker Thomas P. ‘Tip’ O’Neill. Bush has not, and administration officials blame Democrats for not meeting the president halfway. But some Congress watchers say the problem is that Bush listens less and commands more in his dealing with Congress than Reagan did.”

The three presidents who preceded Reagan — Nixon, Ford and Carter — had their own challenging face-offs with Congress. And it is true that Reagan was able to win tax increases and an increase in the retirement age, to shore up Social Security, and his strong personal popularity helped him pull that off. But President Obama has found it harder to translate his relatively strong popularity ratings into legislative success.

Members of Congress today mostly represent districts drawn to protect them and their political party, so they have less reason to pay attention to what national polls say. They are able to focus almost singularly on their own districts and states, knowing that any opposition they face is likely to come from the more extreme end of their own party. That’s not an incentive for GOP House members to want to side with the president when he argues he’s thinking about the national good.

Mr. Obama said Tuesday he understands that: “we’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country. But it’s going to take some time.”

There are more than three and a half years left in his presidency, but just eight months left before a mid-term election is in full swing. We’ll all be watching closely to see what sort of “permission structure” the president has in mind.

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