All short term success will be about economic stimulus and executive orders.
While President-elect Obama has an ambitious agenda, his administration will be painfully aware that Republicans will be looking for the first misstep or perceived overreach in order to gain political advantage. Obama has two things working in his favor: momentum, and a "blank checkbook" as a result of dire economic conditions. His momentum is built on two factors: the honeymoon period that most presidents receive, and the presence of dozens of new Democratic legislators to Washington -- nearly all of whom were elected from states that supported Obama. Moreover, his fiscal ambitions (in the short term) will not be held back by deficit hawks. The few that remain in Washington are likely to hold their fire during this economic crisis.
Even with momentum, though, Obama will be constrained by the need to act in direct response to specific economic demands. If his first effort is too complicated -- that is, if it mixes health care reform with homeownership support and bailouts for the auto industry -- he may have trouble passing anything. Lacking a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Obama will find that expensive legislation which also challenges major constituencies (on the right or the left) will be difficult to pass. The first package will be big -- but it will be designed to be as clear as possible to ensure passage. Watch as Obama also works to build (at least some) bipartisan support for his early legislation -- something which Bill Clinton was unable to achieve early on.
Because of potential constraints on the breadth of legislative efforts, we should also expect to see some "legislating" by executive order. Democratic and liberal partisans have been hungry to undo many of the changes enacted through executive order by the Bush-Cheney Administration. Some of these had a substantive impact on legislative interpretation and enforcement -- on issues ranging from national security, to environmental protection, and to choice. We should expect Obama to move quickly in key areas, including environmental protection enforcement, closing tax loopholes, and tightening oversight of financial services companies. The Bush administration made heavy use of executive orders -- without expending too much political capital. The Obama administration will follow suit.
The long term remains unpredictable.
If there's one thing that careful political analysts must recognize about American politics over the last 20 years, it is that politics have been extremely unpredictable. While everyone has been looking for enduring trends which will solidify partisan control, the last two decades have demonstrated the opposite. Over that period, party control of the White House has switched three times; Congressional control has shifted twice. Governorships and state houses have shifted all over the map -- literally and figuratively.
President-elect Obama will enter office with great fanfare and well-deserved credit for the tremendous campaign he won. The early "consensus" is that he has made inroads that leave the GOP in a precarious electoral position. Democrats will work over the next few years to solidify their power. But, if there has been one constant in partisan control over the last two decades, it's been change.