Democrats Savor Gains in Congress, but Bringing Change Won't be Easy

Leaders need to hold together a diverse party and forge a new relationship with President-elect Obama.

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Before the jubilant thousands gathered under the night skies along Chicago's lakefront, Barack Obama heralded his election as a "defining moment," urging: "Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long."

His lecture was aimed directly at the new Congress, whose in box is already loaded with an intimidating set of complex and worrisome challenges, dominated by America's faltering economy.

But first, the deliriously happy Democrats celebrated. "We own this town," boasted one Capitol Hill Democrat. After all, there was a trio of wins to applaud, since Democrats decisively took the White House and collected larger majorities in the House and Senate, resulting in a set-up they haven't known since Bill Clinton's first two years in office.

Most others, however, took care not to gloat—at least in public. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly invoked the need for bipartisanship as she laid out a broader agenda. That's because even if the election was "transformational," as Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean put it, Politics 101 never changes. The textbook dictates that it's one thing to win office and quite another to govern.

"Early action." And governing, even as Democrats prepare to take charge on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, will require not only crafting policy but negotiating political minefields and keeping an eye on the clock as the first 100 days of the Obama administration unfold. It won't be easy for a new president—who has been in Washington for only four years—to carry out a common agenda with veteran congressional Democrats trying to hold together a diverse party.

"Early action is important," says congressional scholar Ross Baker of Rutgers University, who was "embedded" as an observer in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office for several months. "If you look at what presidents accomplish, typically it's in the earliest stages of their administration, when there is a honeymoon period. Even the most ardent enemies say, 'Let's give this guy a chance.' And you want to take advantage of that balmy weather to fly your kite."

Hence, from both sides of the aisle, most early rhetoric was hopeful. Pelosi promised civility and fiscal responsibility. Reid said the election was not a mandate for any party or ideology but a "call to stop arguing over what divides us and start focusing on getting things done for the American people." His counter-part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, pledged to work with Obama "on behalf of the American people" and hear his ideas about tax cuts, energy, reducing spending, and tackling the debt.

But conciliatory words from GOP leaders shouldn't suggest the daggers are under lock and key. In his tough re-election fight, McConnell said that he feared a filibuster-proof majority for Senate Democrats—which they didn't get—would allow them to "steamroll" a host of new taxes and left-wing policies. And the top House Republican, Ohio's John Boehner, asking for another term as minority leader in a letter to GOP colleagues, wrote that Democrats "want us to surrender. They want to see us raise the white flag."

Democrats are working on an ambitious agenda that includes improving education, expanding access to healthcare, ending dependence on foreign oil, and bringing the Iraq war to an honorable end soon. They warn they could face GOP obstructionism, while Republicans complain of take-it-or-leave-it legislative tactics employed against them in the two years since Democrats regained both chambers.

But Democratic leaders are also very mindful of the risk of overreaching. The Obama camp has been trying to learn lessons from the experiences of the Clinton administration, which early on promoted a complicated—and ultimately doomed—plan for universal healthcare. Pelosi, for her part, hinted that early moves on health could include expanding federal health insurance for children and unleashing federal dollars for embryonic stem cell research.