Political efficacy in the Obama era

Dave Roberts posited an interesting discussion topic yesterday: “Mitch McConnell is the most effective politician in the Obama era.”

I can certainly appreciate the underlying point. McConnell, despite being the leader of the Senate minority, spent the first two years of the Obama presidency keeping his caucus largely united, creating institutional dysfunction on an unprecedented level. McConnell will build on this record in this Congress, leveraging a series of hostage strategies to make policy gains he wouldn’t achieve through the legislative process.

But as Kevin Drum explained in a very smart post, the problem with the argument is that McConnell actually has “the easiest job” in Washington. By simply abusing inadequate Senate rules and norms, McConnell takes the role of Senate Obstructionist Leader. This takes a certain level of callousness, but it’s hardly evidence of an adroit politician.

So who is the most effective politician in the Obama era? Kevin argues it’s the president himself, and I’m very much inclined to agree.

On the specific issue of the debt ceiling, the obvious thing Obama could have done differently was to insist that it be included as part of the lame duck deal last year. But for all the grief he’s gotten over this, it’s worth keeping in mind that Obama got a helluva lot out of that deal. In the end, he got a food safety bill, passage of the START treaty, a stimulus package, repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and a 9/11 first responders bill. Maybe it would have been worth risking all that over inclusion of a debt ceiling increase, but that’s hardly an open-and-shut case.

What’s more, Obama also won passage during his first two years of a stimulus bill, a landmark healthcare bill that Democrats had been trying to pass for the better part of a century, a financial reform bill, and much needed reform of student loans. And more: a firm end to the Bush torture regime, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a hate crimes bill, a successful rescue of the American car industry, and resuscitation of the NLRB. Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden too.

I might also throw in new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices.

This isn’t to say there weren’t plenty of missteps, and I haven’t agreed with every decision. For that matter, there’s a lengthy to-do list in need of attention, and unless the electoral winds shift over the next year, Obama’s list of meaningful accomplishments may be frozen indefinitely.

But as Kevin concluded, “[I]n two years Obama has done more to enact a liberal agenda than George Bush did for the conservative agenda in eight. That’s not bad, folks. All things considered, I’d say Obama is the most effective politician of the Obama era. And the Bush era too.”

I’d go just a little further and say Obama is the most effective politician since Reagan, and depending on the day, perhaps even the most effective politician since LBJ.