To progressives who complain about Barack Obama “squandering” the progressive majorities he supposedly had going for him when he was elected president, I refer you to the following chart (from Wikipedia):
What the chart shows is the actual number of Democrats and Independents in the Senate from the time Obama was sworn in, in January 2009, through the present, when Democrats hold a slim, 53-47 majority in the upper chamber.
Of the 56 Democrats and 2 Independents caucusing with the Senate majority when Barack Obama took office, (there were two seats unfilled, due to a disputed race in Minnesota that wasn’t resolved until July, and the former Obama Senate seat in Illinois) — 17 represented red or red-leaning states:
- Majority leader Harry Reid (Nevada)
- Max Baucus and John Tester (Montana)
- Ben Nelson (Nebraska)
- Mark Begich (Alaska)
- Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas)
- Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire)
- Kay Hagan (North Carolina)
- Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan (North Dakota)
- Tim Johnson (South Dakota)
- Evan Bayh (Indiana)
- Jim Webb and Mark Warner (Virginia)
- Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefellar (West Virginia)
- Claire McCaskill (Missouri)
Another 27 represented blue or blue leaning states:
- Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (California)
- Chris Dodd (Connecticut)
- Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez (New Jersey)
- Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall (New Mexico)
- Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (New York)
- Ted Kaufman and Tom Carper (Delaware)
- Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley (Oregon)
- Daniel Inouye and Danidel Akaka (Hawaii)
- Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island)
- Dick Durbin and Roland Burris (until November 2009, when the seat flipped to Republican Mark Kirk)
- Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders (Democrat and Independent, respectively, from Vermont)
- Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell (Washington)
- Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin (Maryland)
- Ted Kennedy and John Kerry (Massachusetts (Kennedy died in August 2010 and his seat flipped to Republican Scott Brown in February 2010)
The remaining 12 repped swing states:
- Michael Bennett and Mark Udall (Colorado)
- Sherrod Brown (Ohio)
- Bill Nelson (Florida)
- Bob Casey (Pennsylvania, plus Arlen Specter who switched parties in April 2009)
- Tom Harken (Iowa)
- Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold (Wisconsin)
- Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow (Michigan)
- Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
- *Al Franken didn’t come on board until in July 2009.
In addition, there was Joe Lieberman, who by January 2009 was a reliable vote for the red state caucus on key legislation like healthcare, despite hailing from blue Connecticut.
Even if you generously put all of the swing state Democrats into the “progressive” group, and that’s stretching it when it comes to certain votes, that puts the president at minus 18 reliable “progressive” votes in the Senate.
And because Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear from the start that he intended to have his caucus use the filibuster on every piece of legislation, and vote as a bloc, forcing Democrats to always need 60 votes to pass anything, those numbers really matter.
[Sidebar: In the House, Democrats had both a stronger majority and a stronger progressive majority, with the progressive caucus outnumbering the blue dog caucus by something like 83-54 in 2009 (the blue dogs lost half their numbers in the 2010 elections.) That's why the House was able to pass something like 400 bills, including lots of progressive legislation, fewer than a third of which ever made it to the Senate floor. The House is where ideological ideals live -- on the left as well as on the right (witness the amount of right wing legislation that the tea party caucus, also about 83 strong, has passed, but which has gone nowhere in the Senate). The Senate is where they go to die, and actual law is made.]
Despite the myth-making on the left, Democrats actually held their tenuous 60-vote majority for only five months in 2009: from July of that year, when Al Franken was finally sworn in after winning the recount against Norm Coleman, through November 2009, when Democrats lost Barack Obama’s old Senate seat in Illinois to Mark Kirk. Then in a special election the following January, Scott Brown won Teddy Kennedy’s old seat, and was sworn in on February 4th.
Could Barack Obama have somehow rammed through the entire progressive wish list in five months? I find it hard to see how, given the unreliability of the blue dog Senators. Could he have convinced the conservative Senators to put a vote to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell through, at the same time they were struggling to get a healthcare bill done? Could he have gotten them to add DOMA to their task list, given the knock-down, drag-out healthcare fight and with the rising tea party town hall rebellion brewing? Maybe, but I doubt that, too.
Would it have made progressives happy if he had made a vocal, visible show of trying to do those things, and spoken out like a true liberal lion, lambasting Wall Street, calling for the heads of the banks on a platter or even ordering the Treasury Secretary to seize and privatize the big banks, and demanding that gay marriage be made the law of the land without delay? Sure. Would that have helped any of those things pass the Senate? Nope.
So what did Obama and the Democrats accomplish in the window between January 2009 and January 2010, when they both gained, and lost, their 60 vote majority? Here’s the list:
- January 29, 2009: Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-2
- February 4, 2009: Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (SCHIP), Pub.L. 111-3
- February 17, 2009: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), Pub.L. 111-5
- March 11, 2009: Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009, Pub.L. 111-8
- March 30, 2009: Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-11
- April 21, 2009: Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, Pub.L. 111-13
- May 20, 2009: Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-21
- May 20, 2009: Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-22
- May 22, 2009: Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-23
- May 22, 2009: Credit CARD Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-24
- June 22, 2009: Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, as Division A of Pub.L. 111-31
- June 24, 2009: Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009 including the Car Allowance Rebate System (Cash for Clunkers), Pub.L. 111-32
- October 28, 2009: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Pub.L. 111-84
- November 6, 2009: Worker, Homeownership, and Business Assistance Act of 2009, Pub.L. 111-92
- December 16, 2009: Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2010, Pub.L. 111-117
- February 12, 2010: Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act, as Title I of Pub.L. 111-139
- March 4, 2010: Travel Promotion Act of 2009, as Section 9 of Pub.L. 111-145
- March 18, 2010: Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act, Pub.L. 111-147
- March 23, 2010: Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Pub.L. 111-148
- March 30, 2010: Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, including the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, Pub.L. 111-152
- May 5, 2010: Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-163
- July 1, 2010: Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-195
- July 21, 2010: Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Pub.L. 111-203
- August 3, 2010: Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-220
- August 10, 2010: SPEECH Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-223
- September 27, 2010: Small Business Jobs and Credit Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-240
- December 8, 2010: Claims Resolution Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-291
- December 13, 2010: Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-296
- December 17, 2010: Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-312, H.R. 4853
- December 22, 2010: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-321, H.R. 2965
- January 2, 2011: James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010, Pub.L. 111-347, H.R. 847
- January 4, 2011: Shark Conservation Act, Pub.L. 111-348, H.R. 81
- January 4, 2011: Food Safety and Modernization Act, Pub.L. 111-353, H.R. 2751
And each of those bills had to get through a Senate which at any given time, had a “progressive” wing that at most, contained 44 Senators — not 60.
Remember: the Recover Act (a/k/a the stimulus bill) passed the Senate in February 2009 (before the country descended into the healthcare wars) — not with “60 progressive votes” – but with 57 Democrats, the two independents, and two Republicans: Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Roll call here.
Healthcare reform finally passed on Christmas Eve, 2009, with exactly 60 votes, including the 58 Democrats — 17 of whom cannot be considered progressives — the two independents, and NO Republicans. This following a virtual war both inside the Democratic caucus (remember when House blue dogs threatened to blow the bill up over abortion?) and with Republicans and their newly minted tea party town hall mobs owning the news cycle, and only after Harry Reid agreed to strip out the public option to prevent Joe Lieberman from filibustering the bill. Even with the special election looming in January, right up through November 2009, the administration was still trying to bring Lieberman and about a half dozen other moderate Republicans and Democrats around. But once it was clear they weren’t even going to get one of the Senators from Maine, giving in to Lieberman was the only way to get to 60.
It’s arguable that it was a mistake for the administration to leave so much of the work of passing healthcare to Congress, and especially to the Senate Finance Committee, led by blue dog Max Baucus. I’d probably make that argument myself. And maybe, somehow, the president could have hypnotized Lieberman into supporting a public option. But the fact is, whatever was going to pass had to get through a Senate that never had a 60 vote progressive majority, but rather a cobbled together 60 vote Democratic-Independent majority, with anywhere between 4 and 18 conservatives holding sway over it, and the clock running out. The president and Harry Reid did what was pragmatic, to get a foundation laid down that can always be added to and improved. Compromise is part of the legislative process that progressives have to come to terms with, unless they put 60 progressives in the Senate (and with so many red states, that’s gonna be a tall order.)
Lastly, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal Act passed in December 2010, with 55 Democrats, the 2 independents and 8 Republicans. Remember, DADT was a law, which could only have been repealed by Congress. The Executive Branch had no power to undo it by fiat, and to simply stop obeying that law would have been unconstitutional, and probably impeachable.
As for the notable failures?
Closing Gitmo: Denied.
In May 2009, only six Senate Democrats voted against denying the president the funds the administration requested to close Gitmo:
Who’s not on that list? Russ Feingold, a hero of the angry progressives, and even Bernie Sanders, who some progressives would like to see primary Barack Obama next year. Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd were ill, and Jay Rockefellar abstained. Everyone else sided with Republicans.
Was it any better in the House? Nope. There, Democrats rejected the administration’s request for $80 million to begin closing Gitmo, too. And Democrats have also blocked the funds the administration would need to try KSM in the U.S. It’s easy to blame Obama for failing to keep a campaign promise there too, but without Congress’ consent, it cannot be done.
And while we’re at it, Reid has never been able to muster the 60 votes needed to pass card check, climate change legislation, or the DREAM Act. The votes simply aren’t there, nor have they really ever been.
Given the situational unreliability of much of the Democratic caucus (who, in fairness, represent more conservative constituencies and interest groups in their states than Senators from New York or Vermont or Massachusetts), it’s a wonder the president, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi got anything done at all, let alone the incredible volume of work they did. With all the challenges, the 111th Congress was the most productive Congress since the 1960s (just as the 112th Congress is shaping up to be the least.)
Progressives can be disappointed that lawmaking requires so many compromises, and I guess they can quibble with the fact that Barack Obama doesn’t talk more like Bernie Sanders (though if he did, he’d get even LESS done, since highly partisan, ideological rhetoric doesn’t deliver Senate votes, and doesn’t square with the moderate majority among the American people.) But they can’t claim there was some giant, wasted, “progressive” majority in the body that counts — the Senate — because there never was. The 60 votes was a great moment for Democrats, and a great media story. But it was never a guarantee that progressives would get the legislation they want.
Endnote: a lot of conservatives felt the same way about George W. Bush, who for much of his two terms (until 2006) held the golden triad of the White House and both houses of Congress, but failed to fulfill his campaign promises to conservative Christians, like pushing through a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a legislative or judicial end to legal abortion in America, or the conservative goals of privatizing Medicare and Social Security, shrinking government and reducing federal spending, while pursuing a more humble foreign policy. In fact, Bush did quite the opposite.
Bush, too, has been accused by the people on the right of having squandered congressional majorities, of spending too much money and embracing too many big government ideas like Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind, and increasingly, of wasting his post-9/11 mandate on an unnecessary war in Iraq and an unfocused one in Afghanistan. So I guess for presidents, disappointing their most ideological supporters comes with the territory.
And yet, the myth that Bush somehow rolled Congress to enact The Conservative Agenda is part of what fuels progressive anger at Obama, but like the rock solid 60-vote “progressive majority of 2009″ — it IS a myth. Bush did implement a broad, NEOCON agenda, but that’s almost the opposite on what he ran on, and certainly not what he promised either his supporters, or the country. As with anything, a little perspective helps.
UPDATE: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Amy Klobuchar as a Senator from Minnesota. Thanks to reader Dave B for catching the error. Also, Roland Burris’ tenure ended in 2010, not 2009. Kudos to TRR readers who are always on point!
UPDATE 2: a MUST READ by Steve Benen: wouldn’t FDR have drawn a left wing backlash? A clip:
I’ve mentioned this before, but I often think about Social Security at its origins. In 1935, FDR accepted all kinds of concessions, excluding agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, the entire public sector, and railroad employees, among others. And why did the president go along with this? Because Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to cut deals with conservatives, even in his own party — many of whom were motivated by nothing more than racism — in order to get the legislation passed.
When delivering red-meat speeches in public, FDR saw his Republican critics and “welcomed their hatred.” When governing, FDR made constant concessions — even if it meant occasionally betraying his principles and some of his own supporters — in order to get something done.
Obama’s focus on the Huffington Post is probably misplaced — there are far better examples — but the larger point seems persuasive to me. Wouldn’t FDR have faced a bitter backlash from the left? Wouldn’t Lincoln have drawn howls for compromising on the greatest moral crisis in American history?
I suspect we’d see and hear plenty about donor boycotts, talk of primary challengers, supporters lamenting how disappointed they are, columns about a lack of “leadership,” “failed opportunities,” “unmet expectations,” etc.
History and hindsight, I suppose, tend to round some of the edges over time.
Four years into Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential term, the worst of the Great Depression seemed behind him. Massive jolts of New Deal spending had stopped the economic slide, and the unemployment rate was cut from 22 percent to less than 10 percent.
“People felt that there was momentum,” U.S. Senate historian Donald Ritchie tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. “Finally, there was the light at the end of the tunnel.”
So Roosevelt, on the advice of his conservative Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, decided to tackle the country’s exploding deficits. Over two years, FDR slashed government spending 17 percent.
“All of a sudden,” Ritchie says, “after unemployment had been going steadily down, unemployment shot up, the economy stagnated, the stock market crashed again. And now it seemed we’d come out of the Hoover Depression to go into the Roosevelt recession.”
Similar decisions Roosevelt made about spending and austerity are being discussed at the White House right now. In the long term, both political parties say they agree that austerity is a good thing. But what about in the short term, while unemployment remains high?
In other words, today’s emo progressives would have been savagely attacking FDR the same way they’re attacking Obama now. And they would have had more grounds, between the internment of the Japanese, FDR’s initial failure to respond to the slaughter of innocents by Adolf Hitler (it was the Japanese we ultimately went to war against) and his ongoing refusal to address issues of racial segregation, lynching and discrimination against African-Americans, including in the armed forces. That and the compromises FDR accepted as part of the New Deal, including explicitly keeping racial parity out of the equation, would have made Roosevelt as great a villain to the purist progressives of today as Obama has become. And their disappointment would have been just as great.
The bottom line: Roosevelt was no less a great president — even a great liberal president. But being president requires compromises, often unpleasant ones, and there is no “perfect” example of caution to the wind liberalism for the purists to point to. They can feel free to demonize Obama, but not with the weight of history on their side.