Obama's Arm Twister is Back—But Will Dems Listen?
Policy + Politics

Obama's Arm Twister is Back—But Will Dems Listen?


President Obama had persuaded Phil Schiliro, his former chief congressional liaison, to come back to the White House to manage the implementation of Obamacare. Observers say his real job will likely be corralling red state Democrats who are wary about the electoral consequences of supporting the legislation given its troubled rollout.

His success or failure may depend in large part on how well many of those Democrats remember what happened last time Schiliro was helping run things in the Obama White House.

In 2009 and 2010, Schiliro, along with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, twisted enough arms and pulled enough strings to convince a Democrat-controlled congress to pass a hugely ambitious slate of proposals. Under Schiliro’s watch, not only did Obamacare become law, so did the Dodd-Frank financial services reform bill, and an $800 billion financial stimulus bill.


While Schiliro helped lead the Democrats to a number of legislative victories, the party took a lot of casualties as a result. In the 2010 elections, after Schiliro helped push the president’s agenda through Congress, Democrats took the worst mid-term electoral drubbing in more than 50 years.

Senate Democrats lost six seats, but retained the majority. The damage was much worse in the House, where Democrats lost 63 seats, and control switched to John Boehner’s Republicans. Most importantly, the heaviest losses were among the very same folks that Schiliro is now being asked to help placate: red state Democrats.

In 2010, the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, made up primarily of fiscally conservative Democrats from closely-divided districts, was demolished. The group, 54-strong in the 111th Congress, was slashed by more than half, to 26 members.

There’s no question that Schiliro, who had moved to New Mexico with his family after serving at the White House, is qualified to do the job. He spent more than 20 years on Capitol Hill, including time as chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, and as policy director for then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

“He knows the ins and outs of Capitol Hill as well as anybody,” said Jim Manley, former chief of staff to current Majority Leader Harry Reid. “He knows how to push the levers of power.” 

The question is whether Congressional Democrats will respond the way they did four years ago. 

Follow Rob Garver on Twitter @rrgarver