The one defense of President Obama I’ve found most annoying is the argument that Obama “only” had the largest Democratic majority in Congress in a generation for a short period, so it would be unreasonable to expect too much from him given Republican opposition. The latest example of this defense comes from Kevin Drum:
So could Obama have done better? Was there a more effective way to deal with an unprecedentedly obstructive Republican Party? On reflection, I doubt it. During Obama’s first two years, Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for only 14 weeks. This means that Obama needed two or three Republican votes for every bill, and if he had taken the blustering, partisan attitude that a lot of liberals wanted, he never would had gotten them. Republican obstructionism would have been even more hardened than it was with his more conciliatory attitude. So as annoying as Obama’s “most reasonable man in the room” act was to the progressive base, it was probably his best strategy.
The argument that Democrats only had 60 votes for a few months works only if you willfully ignore the existence of reconciliation. Obama didn’t need a few Republicans votes for every bill or to adopt unusual hardball tactics. Obama could have followed the well establish tradition of using reconciliation to pass his agenda.
When George W. Bush wanted to pass his top priority, tax cuts, but Senate Democrat wouldn’t agree, Bush used reconciliation to do it with a simple Senate majority.
When early in his first term Bill Clinton wanted to raise taxes, but Senate Republican wouldn’t agree, he did it with a simple Senate majority using reconciliation.
Unlike his predecessors President Obama was extremely reluctant to use this well established tool. He only used it to finish health care reform after twice squandering his 60 vote Senate majority on fruitless year long negotiations with Republicans.
Obama made no effort to use reconciliation early on while he still enjoyed broad support and no effort to use it again in his second year even after it was abundantly clear the minority Republicans were going to obstruct any legislation Democrats put forward.
The simple fact that Obama refused to use reconciliation is likely what encouraged Republicans to be so willing to adopt a complete obstructionism tactic. If Obama had made it clear that he was willing to pass his agenda by putting it in multiple reconciliation bills if necessary, Republicans may have been encouraged to negotiate for half a loaf.
Either way Obama and the Democrats could have used reconciliation to easily pass several bills/policies without any Republican votes if they wanted. The idea Obama was heavily constrained because he “needed” a few Republican votes is simply not true.