Something funny happened last Friday, when Barack Obama detailed his plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which include an increase of 4,000 troops to train Afghan security forces: the most outspokenly anti-war Democrats in Congress kept their mouths shut – or even, as in the case of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, embraced his vision.
This came weeks after the president first dispatched an extra 17,000 combat troops to Afghanistan, an escalation that prompted remarkably little dissent from the left, with only four House Democrats (Dennis Kucinich, Lynn Woolsey, Steve Kagen and Neil Abercrombie) signing a letter urging Mr. Obama to rethink his policy and to begin withdrawing troops.
The merits of Mr. Obama's policies aside, the acquiescence of his party's legislators speaks to what has become clear in the opening months of his reign: this Democratic president is receiving a level of cooperation from his party's congressional leaders and backbenchers that proved catastrophically elusive for his two immediate predecessors.
Just like Mr. Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter came to the presidency with their party in firm control of both congressional chambers. Right now, Democrats enjoy a 254-178 advantage in the House (with a few special elections pending) and a 58-41 Senate majority (with the interminable Al Franken-Norm Coleman race still officially unresolved). That's nearly identical to the 258-176 House majority and 57-43 Senate majority that greeted Mr. Clinton in 1993 and a little short of the commanding 292-143 House and 61-38 Senate majorities that Mr. Carter encountered in 1977.
But today's Democratic congressional majorities, particularly in the House, are different in nature than the paper tigers that so thoroughly failed both Mr. Carter and Mr. Clinton. In the old days, conservative southern Democrats, relics of the party's pre-Civil Rights domination in Dixie, artificially inflated the Democratic majority, aligning with the party for organizational purposes while routinely joining with Republicans on matters of policy. Today, the scattering of southern Blue Dogs who dot the party's House roster are far less conservative than their forebears – and, collectively, far less powerful.
More significantly, Mrs. Pelosi looms as a far more influential Speaker – capable of reining in committee chairmen, enforcing discipline, and delivering near-universal loyalty on key votes – than Tom Foley under Mr. Clinton and even Tip O'Neill under Mr. Carter, whose power was diluted by a strong seniority system (which conferred lifetime tenure on numerous conservative southern chairmen) and the hubris that infected their colleagues, who believed that, no matter what they did, the Democratic Congress was a permanent institution.
Mrs. Pelosi, by contrast, became in 2007 the first Democrat to hold the Speaker's gavel since the unthinkable happened in 1994 and Republicans won control of the House. Today, most House Democrats are haunted by painful memories of the indignities and irrelevance of minority status; they now realize that their party's power could evaporate in one election. This fear has helped Mrs. Pelosi to centralize her power. Committee chairmen now answer to her, and if they have a notion of defying her, well, there's now the example of John Dingell to keep them in line. That there are far fewer Republican-voting southerners – and none chairing powerful committees – makes Democrats in the House an even more cohesive bunch.
This is a clear break from the way Democrats ran the House during the Carter and Clinton years. Mrs. Pelosi has the standing to cut a deal with Mr. Obama – for whose presidency she is, literally, a vocal cheerleader – and to bring her fellow Democrats along, a dynamic that was evident when Mr. Obama made his Afghanistan announcement last week.
Or look at the stimulus bill, which cleared the House on a 246-183 vote in February. That robust majority included zero Republicans and just seven Democratic defections. Or Mr. Obama's budget, which should sail through the House without any serious headaches – a far cry from 1993, when Mr. Clinton's first budget faced a near-death experience in the House, passing by one vote only after Democrats held the vote open so that the president could frantically phone wavering Democrats to tell them that his presidency was on the line.
Because of the trouble Messrs. Carter and Clinton encountered with Democratic majorities, it's become fashionable to accuse Democrats, as Jonathan Chait did this week in The New Republic, of being "a congressional party that is congenitally unable to govern." But that is no longer the case, at least in House, where the Democratic Speaker commands obeisance from a cohesive party caucus.
Granted, things are different in the Senate, where Mr. Obama's agenda has faced and will continue to face serious challenges. Some of this is due to the higher concentration of moderate and conservative Democrats, who demanded the stimulus bill be pared back and who are now handling the budget the same way.
But the real obstacle Mr. Obama faces in the Senate is institutional. Senators from both parties take seriously their chamber's role as a deliberative safeguard against the imprudence of the people's House. They cherish their traditions and prerogatives.
Thus, when some Republican senators pushed to junk the filibuster rule in 2005 to sidestep Democratic opposition to some of George W. Bush's judicial nominees, seven Republicans were willing to defy their party to prevent the move. And now, with some Democrats seeking to avoid G.O.P. filibusters by invoking "reconciliation" for every major Obama maneuver, they are meeting resistance from their fellow Democrats. This is how the Senate works, no matter which party controls the White House.
Even so, Mr. Obama is winning plenty of cooperation from Senate Democrats. All of them backed his stimulus package, and while there will inevitably be (perhaps significant) revisions, few doubt that Mr. Obama's budget will mostly be adopted. This, again, is a far cry from '93, when six Senate Democrats sided against Mr. Clinton's budget, while a seventh, Bob Kerrey, threatened to join them by casting the fatal 51st vote against the plan until literally moments before the roll was called.
His party's congressional forces undoubtedly cause Mr. Obama headaches, but it could be much, much worse for him.