Obama's Honeymoon, Short or Long?

Washington Matters

Obama's Honeymoon, Short or Long?

There's no doubt that Barack Obama will be welcomed with a rush of good will and high hopes after his historic and likely inspirational inauguration on Jan. 20. There will be so many appeals for unity and optimism that the only thing missing will be animated blue birds whooshing about town while crowds on the street sing "Zippity Doo Dah/Zippity Ay/My oh my/What a wonderful day." But what about when the parade is over, the bunting removed and the real work starts? Bipartisanship will ultimately be tested, strained and lost, sooner rather than later. Partisanship is simply part of the genetic makeup of governing bodies in in this town.

If you're trying to assess the prospects of a honeymoon, it's worth keeping this truly lame duck session of Congress in mind. It comes with the economy on the ropes, the financial markets in turmoil, more large layoffs and bankruptcies in the headlines and a long election completed and a peaceful transition of power soon to occur from the president of one party to the president elect of the other.

Sounds like an opportune time for working together. Nobody expects the lame duck to be all that productive, though. No large economic stimulus, no big auto industry life line, no retooling of the financial market rescue plan, no resolution of the mortgage mess and, once again, very little legislative engagement from the Bush White House with Democratic congressional leaders. 

Republicans, who still have the votes to put the kibosh on most legislation, are more despondent about their state of affairs in the wake of election losses than pumped up to help victorious Democrats spend billions more they don't agree with on a stimulus approach they don't like. 


It could be a prelude to this time next year. I say this time next year because I expect there will be a honeymoon for Obama next year for a few months with Congress and the public primed for change. Not to mention that the Republican minority is considerably smaller and will have to be utterly united to frustrate Democratic inititatives, which is simply unlikely on many issues. A large stimulus package will indeed pass early on. A middle-class tax cut will pass. A new stem cell research law. Expanded health coverage for needy children. Odds are good for recharting a course in Iraq and reducing troops and even for initial work on sweeping health care legislation and investment in green technology - all major planks of Obama's campaign.

But I think then the wheels on the bipartisan bus are going to start to wobble and threaten to come off. We'll be coming up on budget bills and that will help turn small fissures in congressional unity into large cracks. Republicans will find strength more in their own unity than the one Obama is calling for. They know that while 53% of the electorate voted for him, 47% did not. Some of them also feel they lost seats in part because they backed the Wall Street rescue package. Signing on to a whole boatload of more spending in a year that will have a $1 trillion deficit won't endear them further to their own base. What's more, conservative to moderate Democrats may begin to join them on key votes -- especially on fiscal issues. Liberal Democrats may begin to feel frustrated at attempts to compromise and start digging in their heels.

And remember, congressional elections will be just a year away. Republicans, praying that the historical pattern of mid-term elections going badly for the party in the White House will hold up, will be banking on picking up some seats for the first time in three election cycles. They will be increasingly confrontational and often act in unison, figuring Democrats are in control and are accountable. Being entirely agreeable with the majority and Obama won't be their prescription for turning party prospects around -- and Democrats can be expected to react in kind, fighting tooth and nail to expand the majorities they crafted in 2006 and 2008.