Despite a strategy of trying to block everything, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party had many legislative accomplishments during the first year, making Obama the most productive president in modern times. A look at legislative achievements also leaves out accomplishments such as executive orders to end the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and to end the global gag order. Norman Ornstein has summarized Obama’s legislative achievements:
There seems to be little to endear citizens to their legislature or to the president trying to influence it. It’s too bad, because even with the wrench thrown in by Republican Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts, this Democratic Congress is on a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66, and Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president — and that includes Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. The deep dysfunction of our politics may have produced public disdain, but it has also delivered record accomplishment.
The productivity began with the stimulus package, which was far more than an injection of $787 billion in government spending to jump-start the ailing economy. More than one-third of it — $288 billion — came in the form of tax cuts, making it one of the largest tax cuts in history, with sizable credits for energy conservation and renewable-energy production as well as home-buying and college tuition. The stimulus also promised $19 billion for the critical policy arena of health-information technology, and more than $1 billion to advance research on the effectiveness of health-care treatments.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has leveraged some of the stimulus money to encourage wide-ranging reform in school districts across the country. There were also massive investments in green technologies, clean water and a smart grid for electricity, while the $70 billion or more in energy and environmental programs was perhaps the most ambitious advancement in these areas in modern times. As a bonus, more than $7 billion was allotted to expand broadband and wireless Internet access, a step toward the goal of universal access.
Any Congress that passed all these items separately would be considered enormously productive. Instead, this Congress did it in one bill. Lawmakers then added to their record by expanding children’s health insurance and providing stiff oversight of the TARP funds allocated by the previous Congress. Other accomplishments included a law to allow the FDA to regulate tobacco, the largest land conservation law in nearly two decades, a credit card holders’ bill of rights and defense procurement reform.
The House, of course, did much more, including approving a historic cap-and-trade bill and sweeping financial regulatory changes. And both chambers passed their versions of a health-care overhaul. Financial regulation is working its way through the Senate, and even in this political environment it is on track for enactment in the first half of this year. It is likely that the package of job-creation programs the president showcased on Wednesday, most of which got through the House last year, will be signed into law early on as well.
Most of this has been accomplished without any support from Republicans in either the House or the Senate — an especially striking fact, since many of the initiatives of the New Deal and the Great Society, including Social Security and Medicare, attracted significant backing from the minority Republicans.
How did it happen? Democrats, perhaps recalling the disasters of 1994, when they failed to unite behind Bill Clinton’s agenda in the face of uniform GOP opposition, came together. Obama’s smoother beginning and stronger bonds with congressional leaders also helped.
But even with robust majorities, Democratic leaders deserve great credit for these achievements. Democratic ideologies stretch from the left-wing views of Bernie Sanders in the Senate and Maxine Waters in the House to the conservative approach of Ben Nelson in the Senate and Bobby Bright in the House, with every variation in between. Finding 219 votes for climate-change legislation in the House was nothing short of astonishing; getting all 60 Senate Democrats to support any version of major health-care reform, an equal feat. The White House strategy — applying pressure quietly while letting congressional leaders find ways to build coalitions — was critical.
While health care reform did not pass in the first year, there are still signs that Congress will not just let it die as it did after Hillary Clinton failed years ago.