What does the political wrangling over a one-lane gravel road through 10 miles of a remote Alaskan wildlife refuge tell us about President Barack Obama’s influence with Congress? Plenty, as it turns out.
Inside the Beltway, reporters and political players have been consumed with trying to gauge the prospects for Obama's second-term agenda in light of his defeat in the fight over a bipartisan bill to enhance background checks of would-be gun buyers. Can he twist arms? Can he cut deals? Is Congress immune to his charms and his threats?
On Monday, the New York Times' analysis was that the president lacks “an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers.” Exhibit A, the Times said: Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska asked Obama to send newly minted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to his home state to help get the road approved. Begich voted against the gun bill, but Jewell is still going. The rebellious senator still gets what he wants from the wobbly White House.
Case closed? Not so much. A closer look at Jewell’s trip also teaches a very different lesson, providing evidence of a president cutting deals with recalcitrant lawmakers to get what he wants. And then keeping his end of the bargain.
Did Begich press for Jewell's trip? Yes. But the real reason for her visit—and the reason Obama agreed to give the road project a second look despite fierce opposition from environmentalists (and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)—was a deal last month between the administration and Alaska's Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Murkowski had vowed to block Jewell's confirmation by any means necessary unless the Interior Department reconsidered. The administration, eager to see the former REI executive confirmed, relented. Murkowski laid out the details of the arrangement in a Senate hearing and in a statement released on the same day as Begich's letter.
“Sally Jewell will have the privilege of going to King Cove and I will be right there with her. We'll have to find a time when the weather is best suited for travel—we may have to fly into Cold Bay and walk to King Cove,” Murkowski said in the statement.
Murkowski voted for Jewell's confirmation on April 10. She got what she wanted; the administration got what it wanted. If there was arm-twisting, the administration appears to have been the twistee. But the road's not built yet, Jewell is Interior secretary, and reports of the death of Obama's ability to work with Congress appear to have been greatly exaggerated.