Obama and congressional Democrats

OBAMA AND CONGRESSIONAL DEMOCRATS…. After the House and Senate had passed their respective economic stimulus bills, and negotiators sat down to work out a deal, Democratic lawmakers were inclined to follow the White House’s lead. One House staffer told the Politico, “Basically it is whatever Obama wants.”

A day later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters, “The American people know, and historians are judging, that this is one remarkable president.”

Democratic presidents have not always gotten along quite so well with Democratic lawmakers. Carter and congressional Dems repeatedly clashed, and Clinton, at least early on, occasionally struggled with his own party’s caucuses, even on his prosperity-setting economic agenda in 1993. Obama is enjoying the kind of support a Democratic president hasn’t seen since LBJ.

Ron Brownstein pondered why this is, and comes up with some compelling reasons.

Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, formerly chief of staff for House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, offers several reasons why Democrats united more effectively for Obama’s economic plan than Clinton’s. For one thing, Obama won a stronger victory than Clinton, who managed just 43% of the vote in 1992’s three way race. […]

[Another] is the evolving nature of the Democratic caucus, especially in the House, as the electorate has ideologically resorted over the past generation. That “great sorting-out” has reduced the number of conservative Southern Democrats most likely to vote against the party majority during the Clinton era and added more Democrats from centrist non-Southern suburban districts more in tune with the party’s overall thrust. […]

Tom Bonier, targeting director at the liberal National Committee for an Effective Congress notes that while the House Democratic caucus is almost as exactly as large now (257) as it was in 1993 (259), over that intervening period the party has lost 22 Southern and Border state seats and gained 21 everywhere else. “You had a lot more Democrats representing very Republican districts in conservative Southern and border state regions then and you don’t have that now to the same extent,” he says. Likewise, Democrats hold about the same number of Senate seats now (58 or 59, depending on Minnesota’s final outcome) as they did in 1993 (57), but fewer are in the South. All of that suggests the party is more cohesive partly because more of its members are representing comparable constituencies and operating with common electoral incentives.

All of this sounds right, but I’d go a little further. The president is the first sitting senator since JFK to win the White House, so he’s more attuned to the expectations of lawmakers. What’s more, the West Wing is filled with aides who have extensive ties to Congress, who were hired specifically for their Hill work. Perhaps most importantly, Obama, far from barking orders, has invited lawmakers to be partners in governing (Obey, for example, helped write the stimulus bill).

Whatever the reasoning, modern Democratic presidents have butted heads with Democratic leaders on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, adding a governing complication for both Carter and Clinton. It’s a problem that Obama, at this point, doesn’t have to worry about.

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