Obama's First Test

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 5, 2009; 1:39 PM

For the past eight years, Congress has had a remarkably consistent record. When something was important to President Bush -- particularly if it was even vaguely related to national security -- Congress pretty much always caved. The combination of blindly loyal Republicans and cowering Democrats provided Bush with a winning margin time and again, even when the Democrats were ostensibly in charge, and even when Bush was demanding retroactive approval for laws he had brazenly violated.

The relationship between President Obama and Congress will inevitably take on an very different dynamic. But even though his fellow Democrats have solidified their control of both houses, it's not clear that Obama will be able to put together a coalition as effective as Bush's.

The president-elect's first test will be the economic stimulus and job-creation package he is championing. Much like Bush after 9/11, Obama faces an undeniable crisis and has public sentiment solidly behind him. Some sort of stimulus package will inevitably win Congressional support -- though not, as some Democrats had initially hoped, in time for Obama to sign it on the first day of his presidency.

But will an Obama victory only come at the cost of kowtowing to Republicans? Will soon-to-be White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel successfully wield the threat of an angry electorate against his former colleagues? Or will Obama really be able to find some sort of post-Bush, post-partisan consensus on a pragmatic, balanced approach to any number of important issues?

These are some of the questions that remain unanswered as Washington and the country prepare for a new political era.

The Coverage

Jackie Calmes writes in the New York Times: "On Monday, Mr. Obama has a full day of meetings with Congressional leaders of both parties to begin the process of enacting the two-year economic recovery plan that he wants to sign soon after taking office."

Peter Baker and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "President-elect Barack Obama plans to include about $300 billion in tax cuts for workers and businesses in his economic recovery program, advisers said Sunday, as his team seeks to win over Congressional skeptics worried that he was too focused on government spending.

"The legislation Mr. Obama is developing with Congressional Democrats will devote about 40 percent of the cost to tax cuts, including his centerpiece campaign promise to provide credits up to $500 for most workers, costing roughly $150 billion. The package will also include more than $100 billion in tax incentives for businesses to create jobs and invest in equipment or factories."

Jonathan Weisman and Naftali Bendavid write in the Wall Street Journal: "The size of the proposed tax cuts -- which would account for about 40% of a stimulus package that could reach $775 billion over two years -- is greater than many on both sides of the aisle in Congress had anticipated. It may make it easier to win over Republicans who have stressed that any initiative should rely more heavily on tax cuts rather than spending."

Meanwhile, Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "Lowering expectations for quick passage of an economic stimulus bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid rejected setting 'some false deadline' for delivering legislation to President-elect Barack Obama in favor of a more deliberate approach that allows Congress to get the package right 'the first time.'

"Congressional leaders had hoped to hand Obama an economic assistance package immediately after he is sworn in Jan. 20, but that looks increasingly doubtful as the legislation grows in complexity and size. . . .

"In a radio address Saturday, Obama warned Congress that delay could bring perilous consequences: 'If we don't act swiftly and boldly, we could see a much deeper economic downturn that could lead to double-digit unemployment,' he said."

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