The Promise and Peril of a Congressional Majority
By Dan Balz
The last president who had congressional majorities comparable to those President Obama now enjoys was Jimmy Carter. That's not to draw a direct comparison between the presidencies of Obama and Carter, but only to suggest that big numbers don't assure presidential success.
There are two risks Obama faces in dealing with a Congress with such sizable Democratic majorities. One is the temptation to overreach, as other presidents with even smaller majorities -- and sometimes smaller victory margins -- have often done. The other is a reemergence of intraparty warfare between the left and the center.
The party switch by Sen. Arlen Specter and the prospect that Al Franken will eventually be seated give the Democrats, theoretically, the ability to choke off Republican filibusters on a Supreme Court nominee, a health care package or an energy plan that is unpalatable to the right.
Even under the rosiest scenarios last fall, few thought the Democrats could hit the magic 60 in the Senate. Now they are tantalizingly close. That gives White House officials some additional breathing space as they plot their moves, if they manage their agenda carefully.
The locus of power in the Democratic Party is on the left and Obama owes much to the activists and groups that populate that wing of his party. They were drawn to his candidacy because of his early opposition to the war in Iraq and provided energy, volunteers and money as he mounted his challenge to Hillary Clinton in the primaries and caucuses last year.
After eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, they want to see a dramatic change in policy under Obama. So far he has done a number of things seemingly aimed at accommodating them, but it is an incomplete record that has left the left urging more.
He ordered the closing of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, but has not resolved what to do with all the prisoners. He ordered an end to the harsh interrogation tactics employed by the Bush administration, but left open the possibility of rethinking how to deal with some terrorist detainees. He released the Justice Department memos offering legal justification for those techniques, but has resisted a full public airing of those decisions.
Domestically, House Democrats showed the pent up demand for spending and pet projects on the left in putting together the initial stimulus package. The White House was later forced to scale back that measure to win enough support to pass the bill in the House. Obama will face pressure on health care from advocates of universal coverage. Already there is a debate underway about whether to include a public insurance plan as part of a reform package and if so how to construct it.
Obama's Republican critics say he already has shown a tendency to overreach -- not only by the breadth of his agenda but also by the composition of the stimulus package. There is little he hasn't been willing to take on, either because a crisis greeted him when he arrived in the Oval Office or because he's been reluctant to scale back his ambitions in the face of having to spend record amounts to deal with the economy and the financial industry. Republicans have made their bet that there will be a public backlash against the amount of government Obama has embraced.
Obama's economic program may not work. It's too soon to know the answer to that. But Democratic strategists say they doubt that Obama or congressional leaders will ultimately succumb to pressures from the left that might lead them to pursue a politically risky course as they shape the details of the president's agenda.
"I don't get the sense that either he is inclined to do that or that the congressional leadership is inclined to do that," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who was chief of staff to former House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt.
Elmendorf said he believes that both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid learned the lessons of 1993 and 1994, when the Democrats overreached under President Clinton and lost their majorities. "Pelosi and Reid are very cognizant of what they have to do to protect their majorities," he said. "We're not going to have a 1993-94 experience."
That optimism is shared by Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democratic moderate. "Bush alienated the moderates and independents and his policies had significant failings," he said in an interview. "So it gives us the opportunity to cement the allegiance of those folks. The one thing I can see out there that might actually resuscitate the Republican Party would be us moving in an extreme ideological direction. I think President Obama and Leader Reid and the people around them are smarter than that."
Still, Bayh believes some pressure may be needed to assure that outcome. He is one of a dozen centrists who have been meeting regularly with the goal of keeping the party closer to the center.
The Democratic moderates have become the critical swing block in reaching the 60-vote threshold. Obama may find them useful as a foil to play off against the left, particularly some of the outside groups clamoring for more aggressive changes. But the more they exert themselves, the greater the possibility of open conflict between the left and center within the party.
Over the past few years, the Democrats have been so united in their opposition to Bush's policies that they have largely avoided internal ideological battles. But with their ranks enlarged and expectations raised, that may be more difficult, unless Obama, Pelosi and Reid skillfully manage the Democratic coalition as they try to complete the president's big first-year agenda.
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May 5, 2009; 1:48 PM ET
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