Voters for the first time in almost five decades on Tuesday will send a sitting member of Congress to the White House, with Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain both promising to thaw the prickly relationship between the two branches of government.
But congressional experience is no guarantee the next president will have a cozy time with his former colleagues, as both candidates would likely face obstacles on Capitol Hill that could slow or sidetrack their political agendas.
“With Obama, he was not in the Senate very long, and John McCain is not very well-liked in the Senate, so [their congressional experience] might cut the other way,” said Gene Healy, a vice president at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute and author of the 2008 book “The Cult of the Presidency.”
“I don’t know how much we can read into whether legislative experience at the federal level is going to lead to greater comity” between Capitol Hill and the White House.
With Democrats expected to make significant gains to their House and Senate majorities, a Democratic Obama administration would have a clear mandate to press ahead with his priorities, such as an expansion of government-subsidized health care, other spending programs, and a mix of tax increases and middle-class tax cuts.
An Obama presidency would have a more unified Democratic majority in Congress compared with what greeted the two previous Democrats in the White House - Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
“Twenty or 30 years ago [the Democratic Caucus] had a progressive part in some parts of the country and a conservative wing in the South that in some ways meant that [Democrats] didn’t run Congress from the top; it was run from the committees,” said John Fortier, a Congress scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “That’s very different today.”
And despite Mr. Obama’s image as a reformer, his campaign hasn’t been shy about hiring Washington insiders who are “unlikely to stick a finger in Congress’ eye, either accidentally or on purpose,” Mr. Fortier said.
Yet if Mr. Obama leaves the Senate for the White House, he may leave behind a few bruised egos among his former colleagues.
“They’re going to expect his phone calls to be returned because, ‘Hey, he was one of us,’ and now he has the mystique of a president,” Mr. Fortier said. “I think there could be occasional bad feelings on that regard.”
A sustained sour economy would pressure lawmakers to hold off implementing Mr. Obama’s proposals on taxes and spending. House Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, for example, wants to lower the corporate income-tax rate, a position Mr. Obama has not advanced.
Mr. McCain has a history of cooperating with Hill Democrats, and a McCain presidency likely would have a less contentious relationship with Congress than fellow Republican President Bush did. But if Mr McCain shocks the pollsters and wins Tuesday, a Democratic majority on Capitol Hill would be in no mood to work with another Republican administration.
“The best-case scenario of a McCain presidency would be that McCain, like [former Republican President] Gerald Ford, would use the veto power vigorously and keep Congress in check,” Mr. Healy said.
Mr. Healy also speculated that Mr. McCain may be willing to cut deals to let Democratic leaders mostly have their way on domestic issues if they let him control foreign policy. “McCain’s real passion is foreign policy, and he might go along with the Democratic majority to keep a free hand abroad,” he said.