Now What? How Obama Will Govern

Washington Matters

Now What? How Obama Will Govern

I don't know about you, but every time I hear someone use the word mandate in the next couple of weeks, I'm going to run away or put my hands over my ears and sing until they stop. Hashing over things like, "What did voters say they want from Barack Obama?" "How far can he go?"  is just a Washington parlor game that is played here to fill time in the interregnum. It sheds light on nothing. Besides, for anyone who actually paid attention, the answer is clear -- Obama will do what he said he would or his presidency will be a disaster.

And I don't mean enacting his health care program or tax cut plan or any of his other policy promises -- I mean his style of governance. Obama's candidacy was not about specific cures for specific issues, but creating a national political will to tackle problems that have long eluded political solution. And fortunately for him and the Democratic congressional leadership he has a blueprint to work from -- or rather to work away from. He can look at how George W. Bush and the GOP-led Congress behaved and do the exact opposite.

Despite losing the popular vote in 2000, despite having to have the election settled in the Supreme Court, despite pledges to run as "a uniter, not a divider," Bush and congressional leaders, especially those in the House, almost never tried to build a broad base for his initiatives. Rather, he embarked on a one-vote legislative strategy that embraced the notion that passing a bill by one vote is as good as unanimity and meant never compromising more than needed to get that one vote.

That is about as short-sighted an approach as possible for a new president, and it was one of the chief reasons that partisanship and acrimony grew even fiercer over the past eight years. And the resulting animosity was not reserved for Democrats alone. Republicans were relentless about moving many bills with as few concessions as possible and often twisted arms Senators or House members to get their way. That caused considerable resentment that helped lead to the party's implosion in the 2006 elections and yesterday.

With controlling margins far bigger than anything Republicans enjoyed during the Bush years, some Democrats may wish and hope to be able to conduct business as if Republicans don't exist, but Obama should and likely will disabuse them of such a notion quickly. In fact, he may do that right off the bat by seeking out fellow Chicago pol Rep. Rahm Emanuel as his White House chief of staff.

At first blush, picking Emanuel may appear an odd choice for a president-elect promising to lower the partisan temperature. Emanuel, a former top aide to President Clinton, is the No. 4 Democrat in the House, and he headed up the party's House election efforts. He has a reputation for being incredibly tough and as effective a campaign combatant and political tactician as the Democrats have. But Emanuel's no-nonsense reputation stems largely from his ability to get things done. He understands both the White House and Congress and ideologically is a political centrist. In fact, a good bit of his role under Clinton was to reach out to Republicans and to keep Democrats in line. Emanuel was often handed tough jobs in Clinton's White House -- passing the highly controversial NAFTA trade bill and welfare reform, for example -- where success required working with members of both parties and against the wishes of many liberal Democrats.

And frankly, it just appears unlikely that congressional Democrats will push too hard against Obama if he follows through on his pledge to pursue bipartisanship and the middle of the road. Spats and power struggles of that sort broke out in 1993 and, along with Clinton's top-down approach to health care legislation, helped spark the 1994 Republican Revolution that cost Democrats control of Congress. After more than a decade in the political wilderness, after a long struggle to regain power by making the party much more ideologically diverse and after years of partisan gridlock, it's reasonable to expect that Democrats have learned something about the risks and costs of one-party power carried to extremes.