Obama and the Senate: Whether Healthcare or An Ambassador to Azerbaijan, He Doesn’t Get It

When the epitaph of the Obama administration is written, it could well be “He was a former Senator who understood neither the House nor the Senate, and suffered for it.”

Most of President Obama’s failures come from this critical shortcoming. Even those things Obama claims as victories (Obamacare being the best example), and that now threaten to end his presidency, come from misunderstanding the branch of which he was nominally a part for four years. A man who ran as the smartest fellow in the room, with technocratic experience gleaned from years of being a legislator, appears clueless when dealing with Congress. (Jay Cost produced an incredible archive on this very topic here.)

With healthcare, he never understood that if he did not guide Congress, he would get what that branch’s majority wanted, and they gave it to him in spades, leaving him to defend it and unable to blame Republicans for it. The same problem ran with the stimulus, which was after all just a series of payoffs to unions private and public, and which famously failed to keep unemployment below the dreaded no-stimulus curve.

The Obama Presidency in a nutshell. (h/t Dan Spencer at Examiner.com)

With the spectacular wipeout the President and his allies managed in 2010, Obama finally had an excuse for his complete inability to work with the other political branch: Republican intransigence! Can’t get another (sure to fail) stimulus through? Republicans! Need to spend (much much much) more and have a debt ceiling problem? Republicans! Recovery is going too slowly, too much regulation? Ha, just kidding, he’d never say that and mean it.

It hasn’t hurt that the Republican Party appears to be led by people who exist purely to look stupid and bullheaded when opposing Obama. But it ignores the fact that Obama can’t even control his own party very well.

You can go back to the stimulus bill and the health care debate, when the White House agenda seemed entirely beholden to whatever Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid (and more importantly, their caucuses) wanted.

But you don’t need to go that far. You can look at Obama’s recent unconstitutional power grab, which probably struck him as great optics for his campaign. If Obama understood Congress at all, he would have asked whether it is a good idea to tell Republicans — who will likely take the majority in the Senate in 2012 — that he will seek to undermine their very branch of government at every opportunity. A President needs Congress to accomplish the big things, and not to stop him from doing the small things. This is doubly true for a second-term President, who has only months before he is a lame duck.

But more importantly, he just told his own party to support him in an election year at the cost of gravely upsetting the people who will set the agenda in 2013. The Senate runs on consent and comity, and he just did as much damage as all the partisanship of the last ten years combined.

This involves foreign policy as well. Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post recently noted, Obama and Senate Democrats have been engaged in a game of one-upmanship of incompetence, as each tries to find a worse way to botch the confirmation of Matthew Bryza as ambassador to Azerbaijan. Bryza, who had the recommendations of dozens of foreign policy eminences and influential non-governmental organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute, was denied a final vote in 2010 because Senators Boxer and Menendez put a hold on him; Senate Democrats were incompetent to push him through anyway; and Obama chose to fight Republicans rather than his own party, making Bryza a recess appointment. That appointment has ended.

No one will ever accuse Babs “Ma’am” Boxer of having more than room-temperature (Celsius) IQ, and Menendez is purely a creature of the New Jersey Democratic machine, with all its weird ethnic bows. Obama, on the other hand, is supposed to understand exactly how important even things that look small can be.

Azerbaijan is an energy-rich former Soviet state with no real love for Russia and a deep desire to put its energy reserves out on the market. It has been a fairly consistent partner of NATO and United States ally in a region — Central Asia — where we need every ally we can get. It is a country still struggling out from under decades of Soviet tyranny. And it is locked in a cold war with Armenia — a strong enough Russian ally that when Russian tanks left South Ossetia, they headed right for Armenia — over the Nagorno-Karabakh, a region Armenia has been trying to wrest from Azerbaijan for two decades. Armenia actually went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh and killed 20,000 Azeris in the period from 1991 to 1994. It now occupies 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory, with backing from Vladimir Putin.

It is over Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian diaspora groups the world over have gone to war, equating implicitly and explicitly the Azeri attempt to hold its own land against what was undeniably an assault by Armenia to the Turkish genocide of Armenians in the early 20th century. This is what my professors used to call a “false dichotomy.”

The region remains one of the world’s hottest flashpoints, and is an obstacle to normal relations among the countries in the region. For two decades, the OSCE Minsk group — with the U.S., France, and Russia at its head — has worked to resolve the issue, battling against the perception that three countries with large Armenian diasporas will inherently favor Armenia.

Between them, Obama and the Senate Democrats just gave them a very good reason to believe that. Bryza was opposed, as ambassador to Azerbaijan, for being insufficiently sensitive to Armenia. As Hiatt notes, this has the dual effects of removing an ambassador who was working to strengthen the ties between Azeri civil society and government, with long experience in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and telegraphing to Azerbaijan that his replacement will have to have the stamp of approval of its arch-enemy Armenia.

This undercuts almost every American goal and interest in the region in one fell swoop — and it was all avoidable, if only Obama had understood how to control his own party, or how the Senate works.

Obama promised smart diplomacy. Of course, he also promised effective governance. We’ve gotten neither.