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Commentary: Obama enters 'The Matrix'

  • Story Highlights
  • John Feehery: Obama's agenda is huge and hugely expensive
  • He says president is running into the reality of life in Congress
  • He says time is short, and a president's political capital drains quickly
  • Feehery: Obama could wind up with none of his major priorities realized
By John Feehery
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: John Feehery was a staffer for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republicans in Congress. He is president of Feehery Group, a Washington-based advocacy firm that has represented clients including the News Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He formerly was a government relations executive vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America.

John Feehery says Obama's "breathtaking agenda" is running into the reality of life on Capitol Hill.

John Feehery says Obama's "breathtaking agenda" is running into the reality of life on Capitol Hill.

(CNN) -- As the president moves forward on his ambitious legislative agenda, it might seem as if he is entering "The Matrix," a surreal world that only has the vaguest connection to real life.

And, indeed, the Congress has its own rules that make quick legislative action, no matter how popular with the American people, hard to achieve.

The Obama agenda is breathtaking in its scope and eye-popping in its cost.

He seeks to completely recast the health care, energy, financial services and automobile sectors of this country, as he seeks to make the tax code more progressive, retirement programs more sustainable, and the immigration system more welcoming to immigrants. And he also wants to stimulate the economy and get us out of what some people are calling the "Great Recession." But can it all get done, and in a form that makes his political base happy?

The president insists that he can get this all done, and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has implied that the financial crisis has actually given the White House more momentum to get it all done. But history tells a different story.

Congress has its own code, and cracking that code usually means taking into account five different factors. These five factors are:

Money: It may seem trite, but the biggest factor in determining the size and scope of a legislative agenda is how much money -- and more importantly, the perception of how much money -- is available for the government to use. Bill Clinton's legislative agenda was necessarily limited because his budget constraints made it difficult to spend money on big things.

George Bush, who inherited a fairly large budget surplus, had money to burn, which allowed him to pass a prescription drug benefit. President Obama has no money, which means that if he wants to pass a big new entitlement like a health care public option, he will have to make the Congress take the painful step of raising a lot of taxes.

Time: The legislative calendar is simply not that long. A new administration has a little less than a year to pass its big-ticket items, mostly because it is very hard to get major initiatives done in an election year. Take away the three months it takes to hire key staff, a couple of months for the various congressional recesses, and you have about six months to really legislate.

Since Congress is supposed to use some time to pass its annual spending bills (there are 12 that need to be passed each year, not counting supplemental spending bills), time for big initiatives is actually very limited. Each day the president takes time to travel overseas or to throw out the first pitch at an All Star game, he is taking time away from making contacts with legislators whose support is crucial for the president's agenda. Time is not a limitless resource on Capitol Hill.

Political capital: A president enters office with the highest popularity ratings he will ever get (barring a war or some other calamity that brings the country together), which is why most presidents try to pass as much as possible as early as possible in their administrations. The most famous example of that was Franklin Roosevelt's Hundred Days. But there are other examples. Ronald Reagan moved his agenda very early in his administration, George Bush passed his tax proposals and the No Child Left Behind law very early in his White House. They understood the principle that it is important to strike while the iron is hot.

President Bush famously misunderstood this principle when he said that he was going to use the "political capital" gained in his re-election to pass Social Security reform. What he failed to understand was that as soon as he won re-election, he was a lame duck in the eyes of the Congress, and he had no political capital.

President Obama believes he has a lot of political capital, and perhaps he does. But each day he is in office, his political capital reserve is declining. And each time he goes to the well to pass things like "cap and trade" makes it more difficult for him to pass his more important priorities like health care.

Focus: Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time. But focus is essential to achieving results. Presidential focus quite often moves off the domestic agenda and into the wider world of diplomacy. But that can spell greater political danger for a president and his party.

George H.W. Bush spent most of his presidency winning a war against Iraq and successfully concluded the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. But neither of those foreign policy successes helped him win re-election. His son, George W. Bush, understood that he had to keep a tight focus on the economy and one big domestic policy item (education), and while the war on terror did end up dominating his presidency, Bush never forgot to focus on his domestic achievements.

The biggest danger to President Obama is not just foreign entanglements, it is also competing domestic priorities that threaten to undermine his ability to get big things done. For example, the House vote on cap and trade has made it very hard for conservative and moderate Democrats to join with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a more important health care bill.

After the cap and trade vote, opponents deluged the offices of centrist House Democrats with loud complaints about the costs of the energy bill, and according to media reports, that has made these critical members even more nervous about the budget ramifications of the health care reform package being pushed by the president.

Ego: Probably the most intangible and most unpredictable part of the legislative process is the rather large egos of the legislators. Despite having generally milquetoast reputations, each member of Congress has a variety of factors that impact how and why they vote. Of course, their chief motivation is political survival. But each assesses their political viability differently, and loyalty to the White House is not always top of the list. Some members of Congress, who have been in the trenches for decades, have healthy egos that need love and affection from the Obama administration.

For example, when the White House concluded deals with health care providers, legislative leaders like Charlie Rangel and Henry Waxman, who weren't party to the talks, threw a fit, said the deals didn't apply to them, and sent a strong message that they weren't going to honor those commitments. That of course, threw the larger health care negotiations into disarray. Egos matter on Capitol Hill, and stroking them is an essential part of cracking the congressional code.

In the movie "The Matrix," Keanu Reeves, playing Neo, ends the film with the line, "Anything is possible." In a Hollywood movie, anything is possible. But in Congress, with limited money, limited time and limited patience, the president can't get everything he wants. And after watching his cap and trade proposal fall flat in the Senate, his health care bill lose support in both chambers, his tax proposals meet stiff resistance from the business community and key centrist Democrats, and his financial service reform proposals go nowhere, he risks getting nothing that he wants.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Feehery.

All About The White HouseGeorge W. BushPolitics

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