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2009 Democratic agenda severely weakened by Republicans' united opposition
Obama admires their no-nonsense approach, aides said. The trio talked frequently and met more than a half-dozen times in the Oval Office. In May, Obama headlined a fundraiser for Reid at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In October, the president's schedule showed a lunch with Pelosi in his private dining room.
Throughout, Obama ceded them ample authority. "The president set parameters or general principles of what he wants done," Axelrod said. "He's given them the latitude on how to achieve those ends."
But some Democrats would eventually complain that Obama was too hands-off, too absent, especially after tough votes.
When House Democrats passed energy legislation in June that included a controversial plan to curb carbon emissions, many returned home during a recess to angry constituents and found little support from the president.
House Democrats also complain about the missed political opportunity in the administration's muted response to what they consider one of their biggest 2009 victories -- a Dec. 11 vote to overhaul financial regulations. Republicans unanimously opposed the Wall Street crackdown.
"That bill got lost in the media focus on health-care reform," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "But it exposes Republicans to the very fair charge that they have learned nothing. Of all the issues out there, that by far is the most potent."
White House advisers say Democrats need to understand that Obama is not all-powerful. "There is this sense on Capitol Hill that somehow the president can go out and make a speech and everything just magically becomes better," said a senior White House adviser who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly. "If there is a lesson out of the Massachusetts race, it is the people on Capitol Hill have to realize nobody can go win this for you. If you're going to cast the vote, then you have to be prepared to argue why it was the best vote."
For House Democrats, who enjoy a 256 to 178 majority, the main obstacle in 2009 was not Republicans, but the Senate. Even with 60 Democrats, Reid was unable to advance the climate-change and student loan bills that the House approved last summer. The Senate regulatory-reform bill is still in the banking committee.
Veteran House aides say Pelosi views her primary task as delivering Obama's agenda, but she also views herself as protector of her members and will push back if she thinks the White House is asking too much.
Late last year, Pelosi informed Obama that the 2010 House agenda would consist of job creation and deficit reduction. Her Democrats would take no more politically risky votes, she told him, until the Senate had cleared its backlog.
And that includes the health-care bill, Pelosi decided last week. As Brown delivered his victory speech in Boston on Tuesday, the speaker began canvassing House Democrats about prospects for approving the Senate version of the bill -- a vote that would send the legislation immediately to Obama. On Thursday morning, she announced she didn't have the votes.
"She's smart, she's articulate, she knows her issues," Obama told House Democrats of their speaker, during a retreat earlier this month. "But what people don't understand is, Nancy is tough. She is tough."