President-Elect Obama Off to a Good Start, Panelists Agree

Nov 18, 2008

A panel of former White House aides, a journalist, and a congressional scholar agreed that President-elect Barack Obama is off to a good start during the transition to enjoy legislative success with Congress.




At a November 17 Congress Project seminar, "Shaping a President's Agenda for Success with Congress," Karen Tumulty, chief political correspondent for Time, said this transition period is the first opportunity to see what Obama's promised change really looks like. Obama's emphasis on experience and discipline in the early picks for his transitional and White House teams shows that he wants to get out of the gate early with a clear set of priorities. His choice of two top former Clinton White House aides—John Podesta to head the transition and Rahm Emanuel to be White House chief of staff—indicates he wants to benefit from the experience of past presidents. Tumulty added that Emanuel is seen by his own party as an "enforcer," not an ideologue, noting that he had supported the NAFTA trade agreement as part of the Clinton administration when many Democrats opposed it.

Nicholas E. Calio, who served as legislative liaison chief with both presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush, agreed, saying Obama has "done all the right things since his election, and if he can follow through he will be a president of a different stripe. How a president acts now can set the tone for how he gets along with Congress for the rest of his term."

The problem George H.W. Bush had, Calio said, was that "he was a former member of Congress himself. Members were his friends, and he didn't like pushing his friends or asking things of them."

George W. Bush, on the other hand, came to town in 2001 having lost the popular vote and nearly having lost the electoral vote under controversial circumstances. While the press claimed he had no mandate, Bush acted otherwise. He made a concerted effort from the beginning to reach out to members of both parties, both in groups and individually, to build support for his programs, and he enjoyed early successes with Congress on taxes, education reform, and post-9/11 legislation.

"In some cases following 9/11, the president took the initiative, and in others the Congress did," Calio said. But it was a rare moment in American history when both branches understood the need to come together to address a serious crisis, he concluded.

Former Clinton White House Congressional Relations Director Howard G. Paster noted that Obama "is not a Washington insider. He only spent two years in the Senate before beginning to run for president in 2007." He doesn't know Congress as well as some might think, Paster said. Thus the appointments of veteran Hill aide Phil Schiliro as legislative affairs chief and Rep. Rahm Emanuel as chief-of-staff were smart moves, he said.

"When a president enters office with his own party controlling Congress, he has to ask his people in Congress to give up some power," Paster observed. "Congress has to manage from its end how much power they want to cede to the president." Presidents in turn must understand that "most of these people are not dependent on you...and were elected independent of the president and even party. The coattails are not very long," even in this historic 2008 election.

Gregory Koger, assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami, said it's a common misconception that the president has a very narrow window of opportunity for getting things through Congress—often viewed as a 100-day honeymoon period before Congress goes its own way. But in "real change elections," Koger observed, "a president can have continued success for two years or more." Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson are clear examples of this, and the election of Barack Obama has all the marks of being another such change election.

Despite the natural tensions that exist between a president and Congress, Obama has a special opportunity for success with Republicans, who are in disarray after two successive election setbacks. Koger added that a president "needs to choose an agenda that can be signed into law" and "minimize intra-party conflicts." He can do this "by putting the onus on Congress to determine when and how to pass agenda items that have salience, net political benefits for the party."

Koger included in his presentation a recommended timetable for legislation based on the president-elect's campaign document, "A Blueprint for Change," beginning with bills to address the financial and economic crises, and moving to budgetary legislation dealing with tax cuts. Paster dismissed such a timetable as a "nice try" but an unrealistic one, because presidential and congressional legislative plans are always interrupted by unforeseen foreign crises, as well as domestic political and economic developments. Calio disagreed somewhat, saying that legislative timelines are helpful if one recognizes they are not set in stone.

Tumulty said Obama has indicated in a recent interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer that his four top priorities are the financial crisis, energy, health care, and education. Congress is already pushing back with Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) taking an early lead in formulating healthcare legislation in their committees before Obama is even inaugurated. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicates she will push early for enactment of the State Children's Health Insurance Program expansion and stem cell research.

All of the panelists agreed that the financial crisis looms largest in already throwing some of the president-elect's earlier announced plans off track and forcing him to tamp down expectations. That and dealing with an orderly, timed withdrawal from Iraq and a stepped-up effort in Afghanistan will dominate much of the president's time in his first two years.

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