Democrats' Impulse Test

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President-elect Obama needs to think about how to handle the marshmallows.

In the classic psychology experiment on delayed gratification, researchers gave 4-year-olds a marshmallow, then promised a second if the children could refrain for 20 minutes from eating the first.

Some did, some didn't. Years later, the 4-year-olds with greater impulse control were better adjusted, more dependable and had higher SAT scores.

We're about to conduct a rerun of that test -- with Democrats substituting for 4-year-olds.

Obama will have to contend with the hydraulic force of pent-up Democratic demands for action. After eight years without the White House, and two years in which a Democratic majority in Congress found itself stymied in delivering on its promises, the leftward precincts of his party are not inclined toward either compromise or patience. There is some basis for their urgency: A new president has a small window to launch major initiatives if he hopes to see them enacted.

Yet the experience of President Bill Clinton's rocky early months -- remember gays in the military? the BTU tax? -- suggests the steep political price of governing in a way that is, or seems, skewed to the left. This risk is particularly acute for Obama, whose opponents have painted him as a leftist extremist. The good news is that his advisers seem exquisitely aware of this trap and determined not to fall into it.

There are other reasons to be optimistic that Democrats can resist overreaching. For the current congressional leadership, the memory of losing control in 1994 still sears; when Clinton took office, it seemed unimaginable that Democrats would ever lose the House. Now, the enlarged contingent of Blue Dogs and other conservative Democrats applies additional countervailing force.

Clinton's 43 percent plurality made him look weak in the eyes of Congress; Obama's victory puts him in a stronger position to resist demands from Capitol Hill. Unlike the last two Democratic presidents who came to town disdaining the ways of Washington, Obama, for all his change rhetoric, is surrounded by people who understand how to navigate the tensions between a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress.

But the new president will also need to produce some evidence that he can produce the change that he promised. Some of this can be accomplished by grabbing the low-hanging fruit: reversing President Bush's order prohibiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, signing the Bush-vetoed expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program and enacting an equal pay law overturning the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Lilly Ledbetter.

On energy, which is shaping up as a major focus, the new administration could reverse the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to deny California the ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. Paradoxically, the economic crisis may give Obama more fiscal flexibility to spend money on projects now -- expect to hear a lot about the "green recovery," with stimulus money dedicated to renewable energy -- if he can show a plausible pathway to restraint in the future.

Obama's appointments will also send an important early signal. Expect at least one Republican at State or Defense, an indication that bipartisanship in an Obama administration will not be mere window dressing. An edgy Democratic choice that underscores Obama's independence would be a smart complement; my recommendation is a proven school reformer, such as New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, as education secretary.

But there are minefields ahead. With a bolstered Senate majority, unions will press for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow them to be recognized without secret-ballot elections if a majority of employees signed cards supporting unionization. Obama has promised to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay -- but it will by no means be easy to figure out what to do with the remaining detainees.

Women's groups want Obama to lift, as Clinton did, the rule prohibiting federal funding for international family planning organizations that perform or promote abortions. Gay rights activists want him to end "don't ask, don't tell" for gays in the military and sign a federal law preventing job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The liberal blogosphere is a powerful force that Clinton never had to confront.

There will be a lot of clamoring for marshmallows. Obama's ability to resist, and to dispense available goodies in an orderly fashion, will be key to the success of his presidency.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company