THE BLOG
03/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats in Congress Need to Learn How to Lead

Of the many reasons why Americans chose Barack Obama to be president in November, unquestionably one of the biggest was his ability to lead. His vision, and his ability to impart it to the electorate, drew support. It was about more than just policies and competency and ability.

Alas, since Obama has been elevated to the Oval Office, his leadership skills haven't seemed to rub off on the Democrats in Congress. While I agree with them on most policy points, I am losing patience with their innate instinct to capitulate, something that has been evident going back to when the party swept into power in the November 2006 mid-term elections, but then failed to do the very thing they were elected to do (challenge Bush on Iraq).

For example, I read today that if Obama selects New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg to be the Commerce secretary, the Democratic governor of New Hampshire, John Lynch, under pressure from Republicans, may appoint a Republican replacement for Gregg, even though New Hampshire just three months ago not only voted for Obama, but ousted the other GOP U.S. Senator, John Sununu, in favor of Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

How can the Democrats in the Senate allow this to happen? Could you imagine, for one second, Republicans in the senate allowing a Republican governor to appoint a Democratic senator without rioting? If, say, Joe Lieberman or Chris Dodd were to leave office, do you think Jodi Rell, the Republican governor of Connecticut, would appoint a Democrat to replace him? Or that Charlie Crist would appoint a Democrat to replace Bill Nelson in Florida? Or that Tim Pawlenty would choose a Democrat if Amy Klobuchar abandoned Minnesota's U.S. Senate seat? Or if any of them did, that Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl would not explode like it was halftime at the Super Bowl?

And yet, the Democrats have been silent, seemingly happy to cave and let the Republicans keep the seat in New Hampshire. What would be the point, then, of appointing Gregg in the first place?

If it was just the Senate seat, it wouldn't be a big deal. But the inability of the Democrats in Congress to lead is allowing the Republicans to exert an undue influence on policy after Obama's solid victory in November (not to mention the vastly increased Democratic majorities in the House and Senate). The American people have spoken. They want Obama's agenda enacted. But if you heard the talk in Congress, you would think the Republicans won the big races in November.

It all started with the stimulus bill in the House, where the Democrats caved to GOP demands and handed over a third of the legislation to tax cuts, even though economists of both parties agree that tax cuts are not as effective in stimulating consumer spending as government spending is. (Last week, I wrote in more detail about the Republicans pushing the failed Bush policies in their version of a stimulus bill.) And what did the Democrats get for their efforts? Not a single Republican vote.

So now the bill has moved to the Senate, and we have the Republicans talking tough again. John McCain was quoted in a Yahoo/AFP article as saying:

"We need to have in our view more tax cuts and less spending."

McCain knows he lost in November, right? He knows he presented the American people with a vision that included continuing the Bush administration's economic policies, including more tax cuts, while Obama offered a different plan, including stimulus spending to jump-start the economy, and America chose Obama's plan, right? Of course he does. But he obviously doesn't care. And why? Because he knows that the Democrats haven't shown the ability to lead.

Let's face it, the Republicans are talking one game, while playing another. They are pretending to be opposed to the stimulus bill only because of its makeup, as if there is a spending plan they would sign on to. And they're using this bogus argument as a way of trying to push through more tax cuts, the very failed policy that was rejected by voters in November. They are still trying to abide by the Bush administration rule of serving the wealthy at the expense of average Americans.

The question is: What are the Democrats in congress going to do about it? Are they going to roll over like they have for the past two years and give the Republicans what they want? (Just as McCain seems to think they will.) Or are they going to grow a pair and stand up not just for what they believe to be right, but, as importantly, what they were put in office by the electorate to do?

The Democrats let those voters that elected them down between 2007 and 2008 by not standing up to Bush on Iraq. Now the test is standing up to the failed policies being pushed by the Republicans in Congress. Maybe having Obama in the White House will help them find their footing. While Obama has tried to act in a bipartisan manner, I can't believe he will allow his first major piece of legislation to be hijacked and/or killed by the GOP.

This is the moment for congressional Democrats to decide what they want to be, if they want to be leaders like Obama, or if they want to be doormats, like they have been since taking control. Sure, the economic recovery depends on their ability to take charge, but the stakes are even larger than just that. This is just the first battle. If they fold here, the Republicans will know they can obstruct any initiative they want to block, and Obama's agenda will be doomed.

Sadly, the fate of Obama's policies lies in the hands of Democrats in Congress. Hopefully, he can help them do better than they've done in the last two years. His presidency just may depend on it.