Obama’s Ultimate Legacy Will Be Forged on Capitol Hill

Posted November 18, 2008 at 4:37pm

A new president promising dramatic change is really not news. A new president who can deliver dramatic change — that’s news. The difference between hope and reality depends on the relationship between the president and Congress. Under our system of government, the president proposes but it is Congress that disposes.

[IMGCAP(1)]The key to the success or failure of the Obama administration rests on whether President Barack Obama can convince a working majority of Congress to support his agenda. The public clearly has been frustrated by the failure of President George W. Bush and Congress to resolve the huge crises facing the nation. Both have blamed each other for the gridlock, but the people are tired of excuses and made that clear on Election Day.

The great test for Obama is not whether he is for change but whether he can govern for change. And that depends on Congress.

Many assume that if a Democratic president is working with a majority of Democrats in the House and Senate, the president will easily obtain sufficient votes to pass his agenda. But history makes clear that is not necessarily the case.

Former President Jimmy Carter came in with huge Democratic majorities — there was a filibuster-proof 61-seat majority in the Senate, while in the House, more than two-thirds of the Members were Democrats. But that majority proved to be illusory because of Southern and conservative Democrats who opposed much of the Carter agenda.

Almost 16 years later, Bill Clinton was elected president along with strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. But again, that did not always translate into legislative victories. Although he relied on Democratic majorities to pass his economic plan, family leave, gun control and AmeriCorps, he still failed to pass an economic stimulus bill and health care reform. And to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade legislation plus welfare reform, he had to forge a bipartisan majority with Republicans.

The simple fact is that unlike a parliamentary system, no president has a rubber-stamp majority in Congress. Every president has to work for it. Successful administrations are those in which the president has both the vision to inspire and mobilize the people and the common sense, pragmatism and political ability to get things done.

After eight years of a Republican administration, the Democrats in Congress will be eager to pass their own agenda. A defeated Republican minority will be more conservative and eager to define itself, and less willing to be a cooperative partner. The bottom line is that a decade or more of partisan trench warfare has poisoned the atmosphere in Washington. It will take an extraordinary effort by the new president to govern by bipartisan leadership and cooperation. To have hope for change will require President Obama to do the following:

1. Do Not Be Afraid to Consult. One of the worst mistakes a president can make is to assume that Congress will support an administration proposal with little or no consultation. President Carter’s first move was to eliminate key water projects without discussing the issue at all with key Members of Congress. Needless to say, it got the administration off on the wrong foot. Even with a Republican Congress, President Bush rarely sought their advice. The point is basic — take time to consult with the key chairmen and ranking members of the committees involved and the bipartisan leadership. In the end, Members will be more inclined to support the new president if they feel they had the opportunity to influence legislative action.

2. Your Word Is Your Bond. The only coin of the realm in politics is someone’s word. If a president or his representatives are not clear about his position or, worse, mislead Members as to what the president will do, that will undermine support for his position. In politics as in business, trust is everything. Without trust, there can be no loyalty. And without loyalty, no president can win. One of the reasons that the parties have failed to negotiate in good faith is that they simply don’t believe they can be honest with each other without getting stabbed in the back in the press. The president will have to demonstrate that he will protect their confidence.

3. The Leadership Must Be Part of the Team. The key leadership in Congress cannot just be taken for granted and used as a photo-op for the president. The Speaker, majority and minority leaders can be invaluable allies in any legislative battle if they feel they are part of the governing team with the president. Of course, they may not always vote with him, but they deserve the respect of being involved in both the substance and strategy of key actions by the president.

4. Develop Flexible Coalitions. Because the president is not guaranteed a set majority on every issue, he will have to fashion different coalitions depending on the issues he’s trying to push through Congress. While President Obama may be able to attract bipartisan support on issues like education, energy, transportation and defense, the likelihood is that Republicans will not support him on budget, taxes or health reform. He has to be flexible enough to fashion different majority coalitions depending on the issue. After all, the name of the game is to win and although the Democrats and Republicans may not always support every effort by the president, his ability to put together winning coalitions will get both their attention and their respect.

5. Support of the People. The most powerful weapon a president has in dealing with Congress is the power of the people. Former President Ronald Reagan had a remarkable ability to communicate with the public and gain their support. If the president maintains the trust and support of the people, that is an incredible grass-roots force on Members of Congress. If President Obama can preserve the unique bond he has established with the voters, not only will he be able to unify the country, he will also be able to deploy the most effective legislative leverage a president has in our democracy — the voice of the people.

History will forever recall the election of 2008 as one of great change. But to change is to govern. And to govern, the president must have the support of Congress. Barack Obama has shown that he had the leadership to run one of the most effective campaigns in recent memory. But his ultimate legacy as president will be determined by his relationship with Congress and his ability to govern.

Leon Panetta, a former Democratic Member of Congress from California, served as director of the Office of Management and Budget and as White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration.