‘Unprecedented Success Rate’?

‘UNPRECEDENTED SUCCESS RATE’?…. When it comes to the White House and its relationship with Congress, I tend to think the conventional wisdom is largely right — President Obama entered office with an ambitious agenda, but institutional hurdles and unprecedented Republican obstructionism led to far fewer first-year victories than the president and his supporters had hoped for.

Hoping to quantify this a bit, Congressional Quarterly did some research, and came to a conclusion that challenges the assumptions.

In his first year in office, President Obama did better even than legendary arm-twister Lyndon Johnson in winning congressional votes on issues where he took a position, a Congressional Quarterly study finds.

The new CQ study gives Obama a higher mark than any other president since it began scoring presidential success rates in Congress more than five decades ago. […]

All presidents demand specific action by Congress — or at least they ask for it. But when you look at the votes of 2009 in which Obama made his preference clear, his success rate was unprecedented, according to John Cranford of Congressional Quarterly.

Cranford noted, “[Obama’s] success was 96.7 percent on all the votes where we said he had a clear position in both the House and the Senate. That’s an extraordinary number.” What’s more, it’s without rival — in 1965, LBJ’s score was 93%.

I suspect some of the president’s champions will point to this as an impressive accomplishment, but there’s more to it than that. First, the Democratic congressional majorities are unusually large, following spectacular Bush-era Republican failures. Of course a Democratic majority this big is unlikely to pursue an agenda at odds with a Democratic White House.

Second, the score only reflects “success” in the broadest possible way — the president asked for a bill, and Congress passed it. But that doesn’t include compromises that forced changes the president may not have liked. The administration wanted more spending for cash-strapped states in the stimulus package, but Republican moderates forced the measure out. The administration wanted the Senate to pass a health care bill with a public option, but Lieberman and Nelson forced it out. The administration wanted a more robust cap-and-trade bill, but House Dems from industrial states watered it down. Similar concessions and compromises were common throughout the year.

The 96.7% number makes it seem as if Congress simply hands the president everything he’s requested on a silver platter. Anyone who’s kept their eyes on the Hill lately knows that’s not true.

And finally, also note that the legislative success rate doesn’t include Senate confirmation of judicial nominees and nominees to a variety of administrative posts. As you may have heard, GOP obstructionism has brought the confirmation process to a halt, with threatened filibusters and ridiculous holds.

Obama’s success rate in ’09 was impressive, but we’re a long way from a rubber-stamp dynamic.