Awaiting Obama, Democrats are bold, Republicans cautious

January 11, 2009|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,paul.west@baltsun.com

Washington - Sitting at a conference table in his Capitol office, Rep. Steny Hoyer picked up a Capitol Hill newspaper and draped it in front of his face, like a veil.

"I don't work for Obama," declared the front-page headline, in large black type.

The words came from the Senate's top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada. But Hoyer of Maryland, the number-two Democrat in the House, wanted to echo the sentiment.

Hoyer told a group of journalists seated around the table that while he's excited to see Barack Obama become president, he hopes that the Democratic Congress will live up to its constitutional duty to check the power of the executive.

As the age of Obama dawns, politicians in both parties seem to be playing against type.

Democrats are flaunting their independence, insisting that they won't be rubber stamps for Obama and demanding changes in his first big initiative, an economic stimulus package. Republicans, meantime, are largely suffering in silence, muting their criticism as a Democratic president takes charge.

Over the next few weeks, senators and congressmen of both parties will likely fall in line behind Obama's economic plan. The main questions, at the moment, center on how swiftly Congress will act and how broad the support will be - not whether the new president's proposal will get blocked.

The betting in Washington is that Obama is about to embark on an extended honeymoon with the public and Congress. It could extend through much of this year and rival the success of Ronald Reagan, who took the capital by storm in a way that no new president has since.

Members of Congress, with a collective job approval rating under 20 percent in most polls, are likely to think long and hard before picking an early fight with Obama, whose popularity remains high. About 65 percent of Americans say they're confident in his ability to be a good president, according to Gallup's latest tracking poll.

Obama will confront, said Hoyer, "some of the most difficult circumstances that a new president" has faced, an economic slump that many are calling the worst in more than half a century, plus twin conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the new crisis in Gaza.

Obama's ability to deal effectively with his former colleagues in Congress over the stimulus package may well set the tone for his presidency. It could determine how successful he'll be when he takes on more ambitious challenges, such as the enormous fiscal imbalance caused by an aging population and efforts to overhaul the health care system.

Obama has hinted that he's willing to let Congress inflate the price tag of his recovery plan beyond the initial $775 billion. His proposal combines a large dose of spending - for bridges and roads, medical research and modernizing federal buildings - with tax cuts for nearly all working Americans and emergency financial aid to help hard-pressed state governments provide health care for the poor.

What seems more important to him is the level of bipartisan support he receives. Obama made it clear in private talks with lawmakers that he wants a substantial number of Republican votes. That's smart politics, since getting a lot of Republicans on board would give him cover.

Obama "doesn't want to own" the recovery plan by himself, explained a Republican Senate aide. "He needs Republicans, so that it will be everybody's" plan.

Broad support would also help Obama preserve his political capital, which is at its peak at the start of a new presidency.

Reagan, in his first year, brought more change to Washington than any president of the last four decades. His deep "economic recovery" tax cut and huge increase in military spending were only possible with help from Democrats, who controlled the House and gave the president what he wanted.

Hoyer said Obama can enjoy a similar degree of early success "if some Republicans are as cooperative as some Democrats were" back then. He punctuated the remark with a wry smile; Democrats still believe they got rolled by Reagan, whose popularity made many in their party afraid to oppose him.

Obama, who envisions changes at least as large as the ones that Reagan engineered, may not be as feared. But he also won't need as many votes from the opposition, since Democrats control both houses of Congress.

"At least in the next couple of years, Obama can get his way with little or no Republican support," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist who worked for House Republicans during the Reagan era.

For now, he indicated, Republican lawmakers would be foolish to attack Obama too aggressively, given his high poll ratings and the public's desire to see him get off to a good start.

"I think a lot of people are pulling for him to succeed, even a lot of Republicans," he said. "Because if he fails, their retirement accounts go in the dumpster."

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