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Commentary: Obama and the life of the party

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Obama lost big when Democrats voted to deny Guantanamo funds
  • He says president must pay heed to what his party's members in Congress need
  • Zelizer: FDR, Clinton, Carter all suffered when they alienated Democrats in Congress
By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book, "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism," will be published this fall by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.

Julian E. Zelizer says President Obama suffered a defeat at the hands of his own party last week.

Julian E. Zelizer says President Obama suffered a defeat at the hands of his own party last week.

(CNN) -- With his appointment of Sonia Sotomayor and a fiery speech in Nevada, President Obama bought himself a little breathing space with congressional Democrats after taking a big political hit from them last week.

The debate over closing the Guantanamo prison intensified when congressional Democrats refused to provide the administration with the funds needed to conduct the transfer.

Democrats were frustrated that Obama, who had announced the closure as one of the first pieces of business for his administration, had failed to provide his own party's leaders with the details of the plan.

When conservatives warned that detainees would be sent to American prisons from where they could potentially spread terrorism in the heartland, congressional Democrats were vulnerable, left without enough information to mount a defense.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, didn't find the vote particularly difficult. He told reporters that the reason was clear: The White House had failed to forward "a coherent plan for closing this prison."

To make matters worse, this came one week after Speaker Nancy Pelosi came under fire as a result of CIA Director Leon Panetta's announcement that she had been briefed on the agency's interrogation techniques, including the use of waterboarding.

This kind of conflict between the executive and legislative branches when they are under the control of the same party is not new in contemporary American history. One party's control of government is not a guarantee of harmony. These conflicts have stemmed from basic policy differences but also because of political missteps.

When presidents don't tend to the political needs of legislators from their own party, their colleagues can bite. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was famously taught this lesson after the 1938 Democratic primaries.

Frustrated with the opposition to his Supreme Court-packing plan, which would have increased the number of justices so that he could appoint people more sympathetic to his policies, FDR campaigned against several conservative Democratic lawmakers, including Walter George of Georgia and Ellison Smith of South Carolina.

FDR appeared at a campaign rally for Sen. George, who sat on his hands as Roosevelt told the audience that their senator was part of a small "dictatorship" in Congress that was subverting the New Deal.

Unfortunately for FDR, four of the five men against whom he campaigned were re-elected. They formed the backbone of the conservative coalition, a group of Republicans and Southern Democrats, that voted against many key domestic initiatives after 1939.

Many Democrats, not just the conservatives, felt differently about FDR by the late 1930s.

"There was a time when I would have bled and died for him," said the New Deal Sen. James Murray of Montana, "but in view of the way he has been acting, I don't want to have any more dealings with him and I just intend to stay away from him and he can do as he pleases."

President Carter's legislative team made a series of mistakes such as failing to give Speaker Tip O'Neill a sufficient number of invitations to the inauguration and not informing Democrats about when the president would visit their districts.

U.S. Rep. John Murtha complained that while Carter was one of the smartest presidents ever, he "didn't pat you on the back; hell, he just didn't get along with people."

Carter, who did not have the same kind of deep ideological differences as FDR with the Democrats he offended, flooded Congress with unpopular proposals such as energy reform and the Panama Canal Treaty without also putting forth measures that would have bigger political rewards for incumbents seeking to keep voters happy.

President Clinton encountered some of the same problems during his first year. A majority of House Democrats were angry when Clinton pushed for NAFTA by allying with the GOP in order to obtain ratification, despite the fears of jobs losses in industrial districts.

One of Clinton's most famous blunders involved the task force that he established to formulate a health-care plan under the leadership of first lady Hillary Clinton. The president only named a major senior political adviser at the start of 1994 (Harold Ickes), so there was not sufficient thought given in the White House as to how the bill would be moved through Congress until legislators actually received the bill.

When the proposal did reach Congress, many legislators felt that they had been excluded from the task force deliberations and, as a result, they were not particularly loyal to the final proposal and divisions quickly surfaced as Democrats started to debate the details.

The tensions that flared this week between President Obama and congressional Democrats should not be exaggerated. The president does not yet face the same degree of problems as these previous presidents.

He does not have to contend with the same kind of fundamental ideological differences that FDR experienced with Southern Democrats on issues such as unionization and civil rights. Nor does he have a pattern of poor relations with his former colleagues in Congress as did Carter or Clinton, given the smooth style of Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and legislative liaison Phil Schiliro.

Yet Obama should take note of what happened last week even with the better turn of events in recent days. He must remember that history shows that a president must treat his counterparts on Capitol Hill with tender love and care, or they won't necessarily be there for him when his popularity diminishes and Republicans intensify their opposition to his proposals.

It is essential that Obama do more to consult with Democrats about the specifics of how he plans to carry out his most controversial proposals.

He needs to avoid overloading legislators with controversial measures that will endanger them politically. Otherwise, the festering sore that resulted from the tensions over Guantanamo will grow into something that is malignant to the White House.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

All About Barack ObamaNancy PelosiRahm Emanuel

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