Obama’s X-Factor: Closer, Democrats Face the Unknown

For the nearly two years he has been running for president, Barack Obama has deftly defined himself as a post-partisan candidate who embodies the hopes of both liberals and centrists among the Democrats in Congress.

If he wins, it won’t be long before some of them are sorely disappointed.

“For some members, they are going to find out, and maybe even Obama himself is going to find out, that when you make decisions, you are going to piss some people off,” said Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton who is working on Mr. Obama’s transition team. “That is the nature of being president.” 

As most polls indicate that Mr. Obama is poised to become president, Mr. Panetta said the Illinois senator should be preparing to make decisions that make “the far left bail out on him.”

And, Mr. Panetta said, “he might have the far right bail out on him. And for the members, there is clearly going to be a testing period here.”

The last time a Democratic president was elected with Democratic control of Congress, things didn’t go too well between the branches. Relations went south, initiatives stalled and, after two years, the long-held Democratic majority was routed.

Like Mr. Clinton in 1992, Mr. Obama, if he wins, will be riding into office with Congressional Democrats in a commanding position. Yet while Mr. Clinton may have been guilty of overpromising on what he could deliver once he got to the White House, Mr. Obama, a political phenomenon who built his own campaign fund-raising machine, shut out lobbyists and kept a purposefully ambiguous profile, has left Washington Democrats of all ideological gradation with remarkably little idea of what they’re going to get out of him.

“He is a planner’s nightmare,” said a chief of staff to one member of Congress.

Representative Anthony Weiner of New York said he agreed “100 percent” that Mr. Obama would come in owing less than most new presidents, and acknowledged that would make him harder to predict.

“That’s the good and the bad,” said Mr. Weiner, who supported Hillary Clinton during the primaries. “That’s what’s good about him as a leader for the country, and it might give him the ability to say, ‘Look, guys, you, my friends in Congress, are going to have to wait.’ The bad is for people sitting in my seat, who have our agendas as long as our arms, Barack is going to have to say no.”

Certainly, the Obama campaign has been explicit about its belief that down-ticket Democrats will owe Mr. Obama more than he owes them.

David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, told MSNBC’s Howard Fineman last week that the campaign would not give money to Senatorial and Congressional reelection committees, because they should be happy enough with the ground-level organizing that they had achieved around the country, and that was worth millions.

“We have done extensive registration and turnout work,” Mr. Plouffe said. “And that is paying off for everyone.”

Mr. Weiner said he suspected Mr. Obama was a true progressive, but that he wasn’t sure.

“A lot of us don’t know,” he said. “We know he was an extraordinary politician and we know he wasn’t in the Senate very long, so I think that gives him some benefit to define himself now, just as he did to the American people. There is some concern—we have to make sure that he doesn’t have the same types of problems that Deval Patrick had.”

(Mr. Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts, has failed to get much of his early agenda through a Democratic-controlled state legislature.)

“There may be disagreements and differences, as you would surely expect,” said Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader. “I don’t think he will find a complacent, complicit Congress that George Bush confronted during the first six years of his term. And a Congress that looked the other way in terms of oversight.”

Obama’s X-Factor: Closer, Democrats Face the Unknown