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

Mr. Hoyer predicted that both Mr. Obama and the Congressional Democrats would look to the relatively achievable goals of passing children’s health care, closing the military prison in Guantánamo, tackling economic deficits and protecting the Constitutional rights of Americans. He did not think Mr. Obama would be eager to tackle issues of greater importance to ideological liberals, like rolling back the wiretapping legislation (which Mr. Obama himself voted for).

“It’s going to be largely an administration focused mainly on the future,” Mr. Hoyer said.

That is not what many liberals, in or out of Congress, want to hear.

Peter Daou, who was Mrs. Clinton’s resident blogger and is a prominent figure in the liberal blog universe, wrote on Oct. 21 in the Huffington Post that “the netroots never received proper credit for their lopsided, outsized role in crushing Bushism, initiating a seismic shift away from rightwing extremism and laying the groundwork for a progressive resurgence.”

That sentiment is amply represented in the more liberal quarters of Congress, where there is considerable enthusiasm for continuing obstructed investigations into the Bush administration even after it has left the White House.

And Congressional staffers, both liberal and centrist, see potential sticking points in national security matters.

“On national security, which will be in the near background, there are a couple of tensions I could envision,” said an aide to one Democratic senator. “First, the liberal left will want an end to enhanced interrogation, and aggressive eavesdropping. A new president, though, is not going to just shut these programs down. Second, every rational person knows extricating Iraq is a multi-year process—but not everyone in Congress is rational, and the hard left has never been.”

For now, Mr. Obama seems most intent on allaying concerns that he would overreach or bow to liberal demands.

In an interview on Oct. 26 with an NBC affiliate in Colorado, he cited constraints imposed by the financial crisis, saying, “There are a lot of Democrats who may be elected who’ve made a commitment to their constituents to be centrist. I don’t think they’re gonna want to have sudden lurches to the left.” He added, “I don’t think we’re going to have time to engage in a bunch of crazy things that people, the McCain campaign specifically, has suggested we might.”

Certainly, the economic crisis, which presents Mr. Obama with his greatest challenge, also provides him with a certain amount of cover to turn down members of his own party.

Speaking to a couple of reporters after a panel with Mr. Obama in Lake Worth, Fla., last week, Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado was asked how an Obama administration would respond when tugged at by Congressional liberals like Representative Charlie Rangel, centrists like Mr. Hoyer and the party’s fiscal conservatives.

“I would have said before that we would have had a choice between trying to do something substantial in energy policy in the first 100 days or in health care,” he said. “Because I think a lot of people still expected him to do something significant in health care fairly early on. Both of those require more than 100 days to make serious and significant progress. I think he doesn’t have the luxury to do that unless they tie it back into the economy.”

Speaking to New York magazine this week, Representative Rahm Emanuel, who has been mentioned as a potential White House appointee, said that financial regulatory reform, tax reform, health care reform and energy reform would make up the administration’s priorities.

“Regulatory will kinda come down the chute fast,” he said. “Tax reform will take a little longer, because it’s not until 2010 that Bush’s tax cuts expire. Energy, you can do some things immediately. And with health care, you’ve got the children’s health insurance as the first piece of a series of things you gotta do.”

A bold, progressive agenda this is not.

But that’s probably by design.

During Mr. Clinton’s first two years in office, he faced several Democratic revolts over a budget that fiscally conservative allies called too heavy on spending. Then there was the debacle over health care, which the administration tried to jam through a skeptical Congress. Efforts to admit gays into the military offended many conservative Democrats.

The combined result was disastrous, with the Republicans winning 52 House seats and control of the chamber for the first time in 40 years. They won eight seats in the Senate, 11 governorships and 15 state legislative chambers. Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House. Mr. Gingrich’s predecessor, Democratic institution Tom Foley, lost his seat.

House Democrats present and past clearly have that carnage on the mind.

“Some things cropped up and some things were not sold as well,” said Mr. Hoyer. “I think the Obama administration will have learned from those mistakes. Some of the people who obviously went through that are advising him as well, and some of us will be more aware that you have to be thoughtful and considerate in how we proceed. And make sure the American public understands what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

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