A New START to the Obama Presidency?

In the wake of a spate of recent legislative victories during the post-November 2 lame-duck session of the 111th Congress, including Senate ratification of START, the repeal of DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell), an extension of unemployment benefits and of the Bush-era tax cuts, pundits were quick to proclaim the rebirth of the Obama presidency. “A politically rejuvenated” president was said to be enjoying his holiday break, fresh off his legislative “wins”.

At the risk of sounding Scrooge-like during the holiday season, let me suggest that these “wins” signify no resurgence of the Obama presidency whatsoever. Instead they are a reminder of the limits on presidential power. Consider the Senate’s ratification of START, the strategic arms treaty with Russia that will lower the number of nuclear war heads both nations possess by a modest amount and, more importantly, will reinstate inspection procedures first implemented when the original START treaty was negotiated by President Reagan and signed by his successor President George H. W. Bush more than a decade ago.

Let’s be clear: this treaty was always going to pass the Senate for the simple reason that the alternative – allowing a lengthy lapse of inspections – was unacceptable to almost all parties. As we heard ad nauseum from leading Democrats for weeks, the treaty had the backing of every former Republican Secretary of State, arms control experts, military leaders and, not incidentally, my Mom (who knows a thing or two about unannounced inspections). The only question was on whose terms would ratification take place, and in which Senate session – the 111th or the 112th?  To be sure, historically there has always been a bloc of conservative Republicans who oppose negotiating with the Russians/Soviet Union in principle, and thus who will vote against almost all arms control treaties.  But they rarely have the votes to block arms control treaties, and certainly did not this time around.  Remember, for ratification to occur the Constitution mandates that treaties must get the votes of 2/3 of the senators present. This means that if all 58 current Senate Democrats (including Lieberman and Sanders) supported the treaty, ratification in the full Senate would still require 9 Republican aye votes. If we utilize a simple spatial model in which Senators are arrayed in a single ideological line, from Left (most liberal) to Right (most conservative), the 67th and most pivotal vote was likely to come from among a bloc of moderate Republicans, encompassing Dick Lugar, Kit Bond, Judd Gregg, Bob Bennett, Thad Cochran and Lamar Alexander.  (Although Mark Kirk falls within this ideological grouping, I don’t include him because of his sparse voting record since he joined the Senate last month).

That is, our simple spatial voting model would suggest that any resolution in support of ratification would have to address the interests of these pivotal senators.  And that is precisely what happened. The Senate ratified the treaty by a vote of 71-26. All Democrats voted in favor of the treaty, as did 13 Republicans, including five of the six “swing” Senators.  (Bond did not vote.) The other Republican supporters included Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Susan Collins of Maine, George Voinovich of Ohio, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.  Of these, Brown, Snowe, Murkowski and Collins are located to the ideological left of our pivotal group of six senators, and thus under our simple model were expected to support the treaty.  Voinovich, Bennett and Gregg, meanwhile, are stepping down after the end of this session and thus were free to vote their “conscience.”

This leaves Isakson, Corker, Alexander, Johanns, Lugar, and Cochran’s votes to explain. In looking more closely at the actual vote, we can see that almost all of them did, in fact, gain concessions in return for their support.  Most notably, the resolution in support of the treaty was largely drafted not by the majority Democrats, but instead by Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee. And that resolution included language designed to win the support of wavering Republicans, including a provision stating that the treaty doesn’t infringe upon U.S. missile defense development and deployment.  Both Corker and Alexander voted in favor of the treaty after receiving assurance that additional money would be appropriated for the modernization of the nation’s nuclear weapons programs.  Not coincidentally, the Oak Ridge nuclear facility that would benefit from the additional money is located in Tennessee – the state Corker and Alexander represent. Johanns’ support came after several amendments he cosponsored were approved by the Senate, including provisions requiring an annual report certifying the implementation of a program designed to modernize the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpile, and clarifying that the United States can withdraw from START if the modernization plan is not adequately funded. Several of these pivotal senators also sponsored an amendment certifying that development of a U.S. missile defense system would not be jeopardized by ratifying START.

My point here is not to argue that Obama and the Democrats fail to benefit by the START ratification – clearly they do. Look no further than the media spin! It is to claim however, that START ratification does not signal a resurgence in Obama’s “influence”, or his regaining political “momentum”.  Instead, it illustrates the reality of the political context that dominated congressional proceedings for most of the 111th Congress.  Simply put, Obama’s “success” in Congress was largely determined by Democrats’ ability to craft legislation that targeted the moderate legislators occupying the pivotal voting positions along the ideological spectrum, or by “pairing” legislation, as with the extension of unemployment legislation and the Bush tax cuts that I discussed in an earlier post.  When Obama would not or could not frame legislation in this way, it failed to pass.  Indeed,  stories heralding Obama’s resurgence overlook Democrats’ failure during the lameduck session to pass the DREAM immigration act, the inability of the Democratically-controlled Senate to confirm a number of Obama’s judicial nominees and, most notably, Congress’ failure to pass a new budget.

Did we just see the reboot of the Obama presidency along with a change in presidential-congressional dynamics?  Hardly.  Instead, what we saw was a reminder of the limits of presidential power. When presidents “succeed” in getting their legislation through Congress, it is usually not because they have changed legislators’ minds.  Instead, it is because they have framed legislation to appeal to the pivotal congressional members’ political interests, as determined primarily by these members’ constituency-driven electoral calculations.  The ratification of START is a clear reminder that a president’s “persuasive” power is largely conditioned by the interests of those with whom he is bargaining.


  1. Matt, Dont you think the context and the sequence of events is important?

    For two years the R’s have fillibustered anything the D’s ran up the flag poll. So Obama gives them their tax cuts for 2% of the country…the millionaires…and all of a sudden they have what they really wanted all along. They campaigned on fiscal responsibility, but the deal they cut with Obama is hardly that. Sure, START was always going to pass, but doesnt Kyl look like a fool for making such a fuss. And DADT was by no means a sure thing nor was the pay for the first responders.

    Frankly, I am surprised the Republicans caved as quickly as they did. (Does going home for Christmas mean that much?).

    Why wouldnt the R’s have been able to drive a better bargain next year when they control the House? And the Tea Party could have made a difference in the agenda?

    Obama comes out of his first two years with a remarkable list of legislative accomplishments…too much for some…and a great boost towards a second term. If the R’s had spoiled the lame duck session they would have had the big M moving toward 2012. Now, as Charles Krauthammer points out, “the R’s have leveled the playing field.”

    From where I sit, it looks as if the R’s caved for the millionaires and gave Obama a second life.

  2. Jack,

    I don’t disagree with your analysis, particularly your point regarding just how productive the 111th Congress was. But sometimes I think pundits like Krauthammer are too fixated on identifying winners and losers. Consider the tax cut deal. There is a reason liberals like Krugman are incensed – Republicans didn’t just get tax cuts for the upper 2% – they got tax cuts for everybody. This was the stimulus bill they wanted back in 2009 – don’t forget these are called the “Bush tax” cuts because they were initially passed during a Republican administration, and by a Republican Congress. And what did Republicans give up? An extension in unemployment benefits. When this issue is revisited in two years – who is going to be better positioned: Democrats who would seek to raise taxes, or Republicans who will seek to maintain the status quo? As for opposing START, Kyl doesn’t care what the editorial board at the NY Times thinks – he’s worried about his constituents back home. And his opposition to START played pretty well there. My larger point here is not that Obama lost, or Republicans won. It’s that both sides made concessions to get something they wanted. Again, we need to get away from looking at all presidential-congressional negotiations as a zero-sum game – where one side’s gain equals the other side’s loss – they are not. Negotiations often benefit all parties. I think that was the case here. Note that Republicans did not give up the filibuster – they used it to block the DREAM act, and consideration of a host of Obama’s judicial nominees right up to the end of the session. And don’t forget that they also blocked passage of the Democrat’s budget.

    Finally, I don’t believe in “momentum” when it comes to presidents and legislating. That’s a media construct, but there’s no evidence that “success” or “failure” on one piece of legislation impacts debate on the next, beyond perhaps signaling how resolute presidents are in pursuing legislative goals. Yes, Obama got some year-end favorable press – but positive news coverage won’t change the fundamentals driving legislation in the 112th Congress. The reality is that things are going to get harder for Obama, not easier, come January.

  3. Matthew,
    My read on the “lame-duck” session is somewhat different. I was struck by the tone-deafness of Congress and the Administration.
    Everyone expected most, if not all, of the “Bush tax cuts” to survive. But the rest of the session was of, by and for the insiders. The Russians are no longer the primary concern to most Americans – the Islamic Jihadists are. I have come to a neutral position on the treaty but it was basically a big “who cares” for most of the country.
    The repeal of DADT is again an insider game. The group most concerned about it is among the least likely groups to leave the Democratic coalition. It was interesting to see how many of the “country club” Republicans voted for it. Also, I would not be surprised to see this vote used against Democrats in “red states” in 2012.
    The person I am keeping an eye on is Senator Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia. His most powerful ad showed his opposition to “cap-and-trade”. I also noticed that he was away “at a family affair” when the DADT vote was held.
    I think he has a good read on what is driving “Middle America” voters at this point.

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