Clift: Obama's Stealth Success in Congress

The Republican riff on President Obama's first year is that he hasn't accomplished anything, that he's all hat and no cattle, to borrow a phrase from the Bush years. At the same time, conservatives yowl that all the socialistic programs and policies he's put in place are destroying the country. Which is it? He can't be both unaccomplished and accomplishing his nefarious agenda at the same time. It's like that old Borscht Belt joke where one elderly lady complains about how awful the food is and her friend responds, "Yes, and the portions are too small."

But to Republicans who joke Obama has done nothing, and to Obama's liberal critics who vent about the same, a study done by Congressional Quarterly suggests they are both wrong. CQ rates Obama higher than any president in the last five decades in working his will on Capitol Hill, surpassing even the fabled Lyndon Johnson. Obama's success rate in the House and Senate on votes where he staked out a clear position was 96.7 percent, beating previous record-holder Johnson's 93 percent in 1965.

This kind of statistical finding begs for more analysis. If Obama is doing so great, why does it feel like Democrats are staring into the abyss? If the congressional elections were held today, the results would not be pretty for the party in power. "In a democracy, what matters is how the people respond to what you've done, it's not the legislative body count," says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "If the administration has a good story to tell, it hasn't told that story very well."

Obama sold his candidacy against all odds to a skeptical political establishment, but he's not nearly as good when it comes to selling his presidency. The CQ survey should help counter the myth that he hasn't done anything, but checking with sources on Capitol Hill, the impulse is to downplay a statistical finding that doesn't measure the magnitude of the legislative wins. One source cites what he calls "the 40-year rule." If people aren't talking about it in 40 years, it's not a significant legislative achievement. Johnson passed voting-rights legislation in the spring of 1965 and Medicare in the summer, his first year after winning the presidency in his own right. Johnson had the lamplight of President Kennedy's martyrdom guiding him, and he had 67 Democrats in the Senate, although some were conservative Southern Democrats committed to obstructing civil rights.

People may not be talking about Obama's stimulus package in 2050, but fair-minded historians looking back will give him credit for pulling the economy back from the brink, and the $787 billion stimulus bill that he passed during his first hundred days with almost no Republican support was critical to the rescue effort. If Obama gets health-care reform, which seems likely, that will be an enduring achievement despite all the partisan nitpicking. He will have accomplished these things without some of the structural advantages LBJ enjoyed. The filibuster, which has its poisonous history in Southern segregationist efforts to kill civil-rights legislation, has morphed into a routine requirement for a supermajority of 60 votes on everything. Also, the dealmaking in Johnson's time wasn't made public so voters didn't witness in real time the spectacle of reeling in a single senator the way the Democrats did with Ben Nelson.

Given these modern-day obstacles, what Obama has achieved is pretty impressive, and it speaks well of the partnership he has forged with Democratic congressional leaders. The downside to that, however, is that the public doesn't like Congress, and Obama doesn't get credit for working and playing well with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

Obama can take comfort from another young president who in his first year faced setbacks and learned from them. Like Obama, John F. Kennedy came to the White House with an inheritance of problems from his predecessor, which he often cited when referring to problems "not of our own making." Like Obama, he discovered that that line has a limited shelf life.

Kennedy was Time magazine's Person of the Year in 1961, and the cover article recounts the president opening a folder of briefs on national security problems and musing, "Did we inherit these, or are these our own?" He would later joke to friends: "I had plenty of problems when I came in. But wait until the fellow who follows me sees what he will inherit." Tempered by the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his inability to deliver on his promises of a massive expansion of the federal role in education, along with health care, Kennedy comes across at the end of his first year as more reflective and realistic about the limits of American power, and more understanding of the hurdles his domestic programs face, lessons Obama too is learning and that can help him, like JFK, become a great president.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.