Congressional Democrats decamped from Washington this week for the campaign trail, saying they’ve checked off most of the boxes on their legislative wish list: health care, the stimulus package and new rules of the road for Wall Street.
The prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is still open. Immigration reform has stalled. The military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy remains in place. “Cap-and-trade” energy legislation died in the Senate. The fate of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts remains in limbo. And lawmakers left town without passing a budget or a dozen required spending bills for the federal fiscal year that starts Friday.
With the window closing on this year’s legislative action and polls suggesting Democrats could lose majorities in both chambers of Congress, Mr. Obama has found himself fielding tough questions on the campaign trail from disappointed liberals who fear Democrats have squandered their chances and from unhappy conservative and independent voters who say they already have gone too far.
“Sometimes people say, well, you know, this item is not done and that idea - well, I’ve only been here two years, guys,” Mr. Obama told an audience of more than 20,000 gathered for a rally in Madison, Wis., on Tuesday. “If you look at the checklist, we’ve already covered about 70 percent, so I figured I needed to have something to do for the next couple of years.”
Mr. Obama insisted he remained upbeat, saying that the Democrat-controlled Congress passed 16 tax cuts for small businesses, enacted student loan reform, followed through on his vow to end the U.S. combat mission in Iraq and enacted a health care law that dramatically expands coverage for lower-income Americans.
Given sky-high liberal hopes after Mr. Obama’s 2008 election, it may have been impossible to meet all the expectations. Still, some key goals, including energy legislation, immigration and new rules that would make it easier for labor unions to form, were all left unfinished - and in some cases unstarted.
“Obviously, we were very hopeful when Obama was elected. The Latino vote had swung so dramatically in his favor, and Democrats had such a large majority,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that advocates for immigration reform.
“But we have all watched what has happened. The economy did not improve. Health care took 14, 15 months and took most of the political capital, and immigration reform, which was always on the bubble, did not make the cut,” Mr. Sharry said.
Despite falling short on Mr. Obama’s promise to shutter the facility at Guantanamo by January this year, Congress and the administration deserve credit for reducing the number of detainees from 240 to 174 and putting an end to the use of so-called “enhanced-interrogation” techniques instituted under Mr. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, officials at the American Civil Liberties Union said.
“They outlawed torture, they closed secret prisons, and they ended the practice of rendition,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s legislative office in Washington. “They’ve also stated early and often their preference for using federal courts to try the 9/11 detainees.
“So, I think they need to be given credit for a lot that they did do, and I do think they bit off a lot.”
Also left on the cutting-room floor were plans to secure voting rights for residents of the District of Columbia, to repeal the policy that bars gays from openly serving in the military and to enact “card-check” legislation, a top priority of organized labor that would make it easier to form union chapters.
Despite their successes, Democrats have seen poll after poll that suggests their top accomplishments are not earning a lot of gratitude from voters overwhelmingly focused on the weak economy and rising federal red ink.
As a result, they’ve switched gears in recent months with an updated to-do list heavily influenced by the country’s 9.6 percent unemployment rate, a $13.4 trillion national debt and the loss of domestic jobs to overseas competitors.