Right before Xmas and Congress is stirring

By David Usborne

John Podesta faces a challenge in masterminding a change of fortunes for President Barack Obama. Photo / AP
John Podesta faces a challenge in masterminding a change of fortunes for President Barack Obama. Photo / AP

Apparently it takes Christmas bells to wake up Washington. Or maybe it's the realisation that 2013 is almost at an end and the record has been, well, more or less pathetic.

The current Congress is the least productive of any in the past six decades. At the start of this month, 6375 bills had been introduced, but only 56 had become law.

Its most notable achievement of the year was closing government for two weeks in October.

Planned immigration reform and new gun controls didn't happen.

No wonder Gallup is reporting an average approval rating for Congress for the year of 14 per cent - the lowest in the polling organisation's history.

Meanwhile, the White House is still suffering from the botched introduction of its healthcare reforms. If there was an award for the year's most atrocious website, Barack Obama would have it.

Yet with Advent has come a stirring. The majority Senate Democrats finally had the guts to change the rules on filibustering, and the chamber on Tuesday confirmed Patricia Millett as a new judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Now, several other previously stymied key Obama judicial appointees should also get their promised posts.

And rejoice in the astounding news that the bipartisan panel convened after the fiscal debacle of October to agree on a two-year budget framework and spare the country any more shutdown melodramas at least for that period, has not only done a deal, but got there three days before it had to. It is even looking as if Republicans will back the plan to ensure quick passage by Congress.

The flurry in the White House is about personnel. Some recently have dared suggest the Obamacare mess was a symptom of a wider problem for the President - that his inner circle had become too insular and was possibly peopled by dunderheads.

A few among the party faithful - notably Robert Gibbs, his former spokesman and now a TV pundit - even demanded that he start firing some people. But that does not come easily to Obama, which explains why Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is still employed. He is, however, moving to bring in some new blood. Well, new old blood.

The West Wing is hardly unfamiliar territory to John Podesta, the Democrat heavyweight whose appointment as senior counsellor to Obama was announced on Monday. He ran the then president-elect's transition team at the end of 2008 and was chief of staff in the tumultuous second term of Bill Clinton.

After freeing himself from government, Podesta founded the Centre for American Progress, a liberal think-tank in Washington that gives intellectual heft to the Democratic Party and is a favourite forum for its leaders for delivering set-piece policy speeches. There are slight signs in some polls that Obama may be over the worst. Yet, the extent of the pummelling dealt him by the healthcare fiasco can't be overstated. That one poll this week showed his approval rating recovering from 41 per cent to 45 per cent was taken by the White House as good news.

Now supporters are praying that Podesta has the muscle to turn things around. He did, after all, help save Clinton's skin during the Monica Lewinsky impeachment trial humiliation. He is also an advocate of the President using his executive powers to circumvent Congress when necessary to get things done.

In a 2010 report, Podesta said those powers are "an opportunity for the Obama Administration to turn its focus away from a divided Congress and the unappetising process of making legislative sausage".

If shame has returned a modicum of sanity to Congress, we should be glad, even if, with mid-term elections looming, it may not last.

It will be Podesta's job to make sure Obama reharnesses his magic to run his country in more convincing fashion than he has managed of late.

- Independent

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