The House and the Senate are vastly different than the ones Obama helped shape in 2008, when Democrats rose to claim majorities during the excitement of the president’s election. In 2009, Democrats held a 16-seat Senate majority and 79-seat House edge.
Now, Republicans enjoy comfortable majorities in both chambers. The Republican rise was fueled by the tea party, and the president’s deals with Congress heavily influenced by the House Freedom Caucus — two groups which had yet to exist when Obama first arrived on Capitol Hill.
Here are five ways Congress is starkly different than during Obama’s first State of the Union:
1. Republicans control both chambers.
Obama delivered his first State of the Union to a friendly Congress run by excited Democrats. On Tuesday, he will speak to a legislature with two Republican leaders who are anxiously biding their time until there is a new president in 2017.
Ryan leads 246 House Republicans, the largest GOP majority since before the Great Depression. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has a comfortable majority of 54 Republicans, though Democrats will make a bid to control his chamber in 2017. Both GOP leaders are unlikely to do much to help a lame duck president enact his agenda before a new president takes office next year.
The role reversal is dramatic. In 2008, Democrats gained eight Senate seats for a total of 57, and 21 House seats for a total of 257. They also had the support of two Senate independents and would soon enjoy a filibuster-proof majority after former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties in April 2009.
Obama’s first State of the Union address focused heavily on rebuilding the ailing economy and reiterated his campaign messages of hope and change. He also used the speech to lay out his vision for the health care reform that would dominate the legislative calendar that year.
“Let there be no doubt,” Obama said. “Health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.”
Obama has suffered a famously hostile relationship with Congress ever since. Following the passage of Obamacare in March 2010, Republicans have repeatedly tried to repeal the president’s signature domestic achievement. The tea party began to gain traction, giving rise to a GOP takeover of the House in 2010. The Senate fell into Republican hands in 2014.
Obama’s battles with GOP leaders helped fuel some of the most dysfunctional Congresses in history. The 112th Congress, which started in January 2011 and ended on Jan. 2 2013 after the “fiscal cliff” deal, was the least productive in history. The following Congress, which included a government shutdown, was the second least productive.
2. There is a new Speaker of the House.
Tuesday will be Obama’s first address to Ryan’s House.
He’s the first fresh leader Congress has seen during Obama’s presidency: until then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) stepped down last year, the congressional leadership was remarkably stable. Boehner, Pelosi, McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have rotated in the top jobs. The Ohio Republican was ousted last fall by conservatives dissatisfied with his leadership.
Until now, Obama’s relationship with Boehner drove much of the White House dynamic with Congress. The two men’s interactions eventually devolved into a series of seemingly endless fights over the budget. Obama wanted more spending and higher taxes on the wealthy. Boehner wanted austerity and deficit reduction. They struggled over and over to compromise, and over and over Obama won.
The 2012 fiscal cliff agreement was the start of the fight that led to Boehner’s fall. That legislation included $620 billion in new revenue from tax increases on the wealthy. Republicans wanted billions in spending cuts in exchange for the tax increases, which they loathed. But Obama insisted he would veto the legislation if the spending cuts were included. The fight led to a standoff as Boehner attempted to pass a Republican spending bill known as Plan B.
Conservatives never forgave Boehner for relenting in that fight or for compromising with Obama to end the 2013 government shutdown. Dozens of hard-liners campaigned by promising to force Boehner to stand up to Obama. When it looked like the then-speaker would compromise again, they threatened to recall him as speaker.
3. There aren’t just more Republicans in the House, they’re also much more conservative.
Not only have Republicans gained 69 House seats since Obama was elected, hard-liners have established two separate conservative groups, the Tea Party Caucus and the House Freedom Caucus.
In 2010, former Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R) established the Tea Party Caucus to organize more than two dozen members who saw themselves as more conservative than party leaders. The group pushed for cutting the debt and deficit by reducing spending and eliminating taxes.
The tea party faction sunk in influence as conservatives threw their weight behind the newer House Freedom Caucus. Thay group was formed when Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) joined a handful of others at the 2015 GOP retreat dissatisfied with the GOP agenda. The group began holding weekly meetings in the basement of the Capitol Hill eatery Tortilla Coast.
What started as a loose group of about a dozen grew to around 40 members frustrated after Republican leaders failed to make good on promises to repeal Obamacare after the GOP took control of both the House and Senate. Freedom Caucusers successfully helped oust Boehner and are pushing Ryan to stick to his promises to empower rank-and-file members, rewrite the tax code, overhaul Social Security and Medicare and offer a Republican alternative to Obamacare.
4. Moderates of both parties are in decline.
Moderates were the major victims of the conservative surge on Capitol Hill. That meant fewer possible allies with whom Obama could cut deals in Congress.
The informal Tuesday Group of moderate Republicans — once a powerful team of allies for Boehner — has become increasingly less influential each year since Obama took office. The group, led by Reps. Bob Dold (R-Ill.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), now has about 50 members.
Moderate Republicans have provided critical votes for spending bills supported by the White House, but they often have little sway over their increasingly conservative colleagues.
The trend has impacted Democrats as well.
The ranks of moderate Democrats has dwindled dramatically since Obama took office, a victim of redistricting that has carved out more heavily partisan districts.
After the 2010 elections, the once powerful voting bloc shrunk from 54 to 26. They now number just 15.
It’s an amazing turn of events for a coalition that helped provide Obama’s final margin for his health care bill.
5. No fights left to fight.
Perhaps the biggest change for Obama is he is gearing up for a year that is expected to be largely devoid of conflict.
McConnell and Ryan have no interest in working with Obama to pass any significant legislation this year. There is a chance that lawmakers could work with the White House on a package of modest reforms to the criminal justice system or on legislation to prevent mentally ill individuals from buying guns. But most lawmakers are not optimistic.
Congress will still have to pass spending bills to keep the government funded. But the budget agreement that Congress approved last year already set the parameters for how much spending will increase next year. Republican leaders said they plan to vote on all 12 regular appropriations bills in 2016. But there is nothing stopping them from giving up and simply passing a short-term spending bill keeping the government open until after the election.
And, the same old fights remain. Conservatives are already insisting on revisiting language defunding Planned Parenthood and preventing the administration from carrying out Obama’s executive orders on immigration and gun control.
But there is little chance that either party will want to risk a government shutdown or major spending fight in the months leading up to the presidential election.