As he prepares to take the oath of office, Barack Obama's biggest political roadblock may end up being institutional hurdles rather than a united Republican opposition.
The Obama transition team has done yeoman-like work to ensure that, once in the White House, the president can move his agenda with the sense of urgency it deserves. Part of the process has been to reach out to GOP officials and opinion makers who seem most likely to play the role of obstructionists. In the end, however, the customs, pace, and personalities of Congress may end up being more of a frustration to Obama and his team.
"During the Clinton transition from Bush 41 I happened to have a long conversation with John Sununu [Bush's Chief of Staff]," recalled Paul Begala, Clinton's longtime confidant and aide. "Sununu said you will find that the institutional difference between the legislative and executive branches are harder to bridge than the partisan difference between Republicans and Democrats. It was a remarkable statement. I don't think he is right. But I do believe the institutional differences are hugely important."
Already there have been moments of friction, albeit small and seemingly inconsequential ones. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared that he did not work for Obama, just "with him," while Senator Diane Feinstein threw some early darts at the nomination of Leon Panetta for head of the CIA. Earlier, Reid made it known that Vice President Joseph Biden, unlike Dick Cheney, would be barred from Senate lunches. Other Democratic Senators aired disapproval with elements of Obama's proposed economic stimulus package (namely, the tax cuts).
Asked on Thursday whether his inauguration speech would build on the hope motif that defined his campaign, the president-elect wondered, humorously, whether his former colleagues compelled him to change up themes.
"I think it would be unusual if my speech was suddenly about bitterness," he said during an interview with the Washington Post. "It happened quick didn't it?," he added, sarcastically. "I've been on the phone with Congress a lot lately. That was off the record."
Of course, Obama has also he said that he expected the process of crafting legislation to be difficult. He was a Senator himself, after all. And he has suggested a willingness to reign in some of the executive powers that were expanded by the Bush administration. But collectively the remarks create a rather peculiar image: a Democratic Congress and a popular Democratic president learning how to dance with one another.
"I think it is natural that you have people who are important, powerful people on the Hill, committee chairs, who want to exercise their prerogative," said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist. "Then you have an incoming president, who enjoyed enormous popularity and was elected on a mandate for change. These are two big forces coming together. But I don't think they are coming to collision. I think there will be a dance that is typical in situations like this and they will each find a way to deal with each other."
Every administration has faced a variation of this problem. Bill Clinton struggled mightily in his early years in office, in which he barely passed his first budget (no Republicans signed the measure) and riled Democrats over several issues, ranging from NAFTA to the secretiveness of Hillary Clinton's health care taskforce. George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan both encountered their share of bumps as well, though contemporaneous factors provided them with greater congressional support. For Bush, it was 9/11. For Reagan, it was the attempt on his life.
"Reagan getting shot -- which is not a recommendation I would give to a president -- allowed him to come back as a conquering hero," said Ed Rollins, a chief aide to the Gipper. "For Obama, it is very important that as president he controls the agenda. If he doesn't have one early for the Congress, what happens is the legislative calendar takes over."
"Few presidents have ever had to come in and on Day One have a major stimulus package ready to go," he added. "My sense is there will be some real pushing and shoving ahead."
But, as Rollins notes, if ever there was an administration that could effectively push and shove, it will be Obama's. The president-elect will be one of only a handful of presidents to have moved directly from Capitol Hill to the White House. Moreover, his staff is loaded with congressional heavy hitters -- from Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and incoming Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Daschle to Vice President-elect Joseph Biden.
"This is very different than Carter coming to Washington when his friends from Georgia were viewed skeptically," said Devine. "Even with Clinton there was a large contingent of people who were suspect of Washington and kept it at arms length."
"He couldn't have a stronger team," said Begala. "And yet there is this separation of powers, which is important to the Constitution."
At this juncture, Obama and Congress seem poised to move forward together rather than butt heads. Nearly all of his Cabinet appointments seem likely be confirmed without much serious contention. Even Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner -- whose admission to having not payed a portion of his taxes would have proved an absolute killer for past nominees -- is being offered a proverbial get-out-of-jail free card by members of both parties. Moreover, many of the small early sparks between the transition team and members of the legislative branch have been hammered out. Feinstein consulted with Obama about the Panetta pick. And, on Thursday, the House of Representatives introduced a stimulus outline that Obama praised as a strong first step.
"No administration has ever tried to do something as big as they are doing here, right out of the box," said Steve Elmendorf, a longtime Hill veteran and principal at Elmendorf Strategies. At the same time, "Members weren't here for a while and the reality is, the way Congress works, unless you get Senators in the room they won't and haven't agreed to anything."
"The other things that Obama will face is that [his team] will have to move from the campaign mode, where they had a smooth running and tightly controlled operation, to Washington where no matter what people say you are confronted with Congress, a diverse and bipartisan institution that is a frequent roadblock to what you are trying to do," Elmendorf added. "That's just the way the system is designed."