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Can President Obama Change the Way Washington Works?

When President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, he will face a host of problems left over from his predecessor's administration, including two wars and the twin crises of a global financial meltdown and domestic recession. It is probably not the kind of change agenda he had in mind when he first announced his candidacy, but every president must play with the hand he's dealt.

One thing is certain: Obama will need the full cooperation of Congress to get things done. The fact that he will be working with expanded Democratic majorities in both chambers works to his advantage, at least on paper.

A question few have addressed since the election, however, is whether Obama will need to change the way Congress works to get what he wants, or whether Congress will end up changing how Obama operates. After all, his change agenda not only included changing the policies of the incumbent administration and launching new initiatives, but changing the way all of Washington works. Was that latter pledge simply campaign rhetoric to be forgotten once in office, or did the candidate really mean it?

In his first press conference after the election, the president-elect said, "I know we will succeed if we put aside partisanship and politics and work together as one nation." The problem, of course, is that politics is what makes Congress tick. It is difficult to set aside politics unless you assume all 535 Members will unanimously embrace everything the president sends to Capitol Hill without taking into account the diverse interests of their states, districts, constituents and supporters.

And partisanship is what keeps Congress honest because the minority party is always there as a check on the majority. Put that aside and you've got a Congress marching behind the commander in chief in lock step. Perhaps it would make the people happy for a while that everyone is getting along and getting things done. But it's difficult to believe it would keep most people happy for long given the multiplicity of competing interests and needs that Congress was designed to mediate (remember "e pluribus unum"?).

How specific has the president-elect been about how he will change Washington? His 83-page campaign manifesto, "Blueprint for Change: Obama and Biden's Plan for America," holds the key: "We are in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over." In the section "Barack Obama and Joe Biden's Plan to Change Washington," they flesh this out by proposing to "close the revolving door between the executive branch and K-Street lobbying shops" so that government appointees "will serve the American people, not their own financial interests."

Other components of the plan include: increasing government transparency "so that ordinary Americans can understand their government and trust that their money is well spent," cleaning up government contracting and ending the abuse of no-bid contracts, making the federal government "more efficient from top-to-bottom" by cutting "wasteful and ineffective programs," and slashing earmarks.

Now we're getting a little closer to home — or at least closer to something near and dear to those in Congress. Among the proposed reforms directly affecting Congress, the Obama/Biden plan calls for: enacting Obama's Transparency and Integrity in Earmarks Act to "shed light on all earmarks by disclosing the name of the legislator who asked for each earmark, along with a written justification, 72 hours before they can be approved by the full Senate" (both houses already have weaker versions); not signing any bill into law (other than an emergency measure) "without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days"; ending the practice of writing legislation behind closed doors by requiring "all legislative sessions, including committee mark-ups and conference committees, to be conducted in public."

If there is a ring of familiarity to many of these pledges, it is because they were the same planks on which Democrats ran for majority control of Congress in 2006. Remember the Democrats' "Honest Leadership and Open Government" plan? Well, it's back, meaning Obama either forgot Democrats currently have control of Congress and have presumably implemented their reforms, or that he knows they are in charge but have failed to implement their reforms. Truth be known, he knows the truth: It's the latter. The Democrats have largely dropped the ball on these and other reform pledges.

I will deal with those reform failures in my next column. For now, a few closing observations on Obama's "Plan to Change Washington." First, I don't think Obama views himself as the Pied Piper or lobbyists as rats to be driven from the city. As a former constitutional law professor, he knows lobbyists are protected by the First Amendment right to petition government. They are agents of teachers, businesses, unions, seniors, trial lawyers, doctors and countless other interests. Obama just doesn't want them dictating government policies.

Second, he should know that prudent presidents don't interfere with the internal operations of Congress. President John F. Kennedy learned the hard way in 1961 by backing a rule change to enlarge the House Rules Committee. He won the battle but lost the war for most of his legislative agenda.

Finally, Obama understands that his ability to achieve bipartisan consensus rests not on Congressional reforms but on public appeals to the national interest. That is where he will succeed or fail.