As he starts his second 100 days as president, Barack Obama must yield much of his agenda’s fate to Congress.
His biggest proposals, such as revising health care, energy and education policies, are in the hands of lawmakers who will debate, change and possibly reject them in the coming months. Obama obviously can influence lawmakers, but he has less control over his destiny than when he was unveiling new initiatives almost daily and filling out his Cabinet.
In his news conference Wednesday night, Obama acknowledged the prod-and-wait role he now plays on many issues. For all his powers, he said, a president cannot "turn on a switch and suddenly, you know, Congress falls in line."
"What you do," he said, "is to make your best arguments, listen hard to what other people have to say, and coax folks in the right direction."
The good news for Obama is that fellow Democrats hold solid majorities in the House and Senate. For the first time in more than 30 years, the president’s party is nearing a possibly filibuster-proof Senate majority, thanks to Sen. Arlen Specter’s switch from Republican to Democrat.
But even with that margin, the president said, there is no guarantee he will achieve his top legislative goals.
"I am under no illusions that suddenly I’m going to have a rubber-stamp Senate," Obama said. "I’ve got Democrats who don’t agree with me on everything, and that’s how it should be."
The president, still enjoying high approval ratings, has little reason to fault the 111th Congress so far. It approved his massive stimulus spending bill with minimal changes. It has not interfered with his far-reaching efforts to revamp the U.S. automaking industry.
And a few hours before his news conference, Congress approved a $3.4 trillion federal budget over strenuous Republican objections. Underscoring Obama’s clout, the budget bill essentially bars Senate Republicans from using stalling tactics to thwart his proposed trillion-dollar expansion of government-provided health care over the next decade.
Deeper in the weeds, however, are challenges that may prove extremely difficult to resolve. Lawmakers rejected one of Obama’s proposals for paying for his health policies: reducing wealthy Americans’ tax deductions for charitable gifts and mortgage interest payments. They also show little interest in his bid to establish permits for greenhouse gas emissions that can be bought and sold.
These highly contentious issues must be settled later.
Congress is going its own way in other areas as well. It appears certain to reject Obama’s proposal to help people facing bankruptcy keep their homes, at lenders’ expense. And lawmakers are gearing up for possibly incendiary hearings on alleged torture of terrorism suspects during the previous administration, even though Obama says it is best to look forward, not back.
Obama said he will seek bipartisan solutions where possible. But he acknowledged that his party can have its way on some issues it cares deeply about, such as a government-run health insurance program that would compete with private plans.
He said he has told GOP leaders, "Look, on health care reform, you may not agree with me that we should have a public plan. That may be philosophically just too much for you to swallow. On the other hand, there are some areas, like reducing the costs of medical malpractice insurance, where you do agree with me."
Of course, Congress’ often-plodding ways can be a handy excuse for a president hoping to postpone difficult issues he’s not ready to confront. Obama said Wednesday that he remains committed to revamping immigration laws, but it’s no secret he’s not eager to engage the volatile subject just now.
"I don’t have control of the legislative calendar," he said, "and so we’re going to work with legislative leaders to see what we can do."
On a host of key issues, working with legislative leaders is how the president will spend much of his time in the remaining months of 2009.
Charles Babington covers the White House for The Associated Press.