- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2008


President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of change. And based on election results, Americans bought his sales pitch. 2008 was what pundits called a “change election.” Some coming transformations are clear. We already know the Obama administration will propose new tax, spending, environment, energy and health care policies, to name a few. No big surprises here.

But Mr. Obama’s election will also produce some more subtle, yet equally significant changes. For one, congressional roles and strategies will shift. Both Democrats and Republicans will inherit new positions in relation to the White House. How both parties adapt to their changed circumstances will define Washington politics for at least the next two years.

The new president, along with Democratic congressional majorities in the House and Senate, creates a relatively rare government institutional environment: unified party control of the legislative and executive branches. For the past 30 years, divided government has been more the norm in Washington. In 15 of the 20 Congresses between 1969-2008, different parties have controlled the White House and one or both chambers in the legislative branch. When the 111th Congress convenes in January, it will do so under unified Democratic Party control, conditions this town has not experienced in 16 years, since the beginning of the Clinton administration.

Unified party control requires congressional Democrats to adapt in several ways.

First, they must pivot from a legislative majority that routinely opposed a president to one that now tries to enact a president’s agenda. That means learning to follow the White House rather than developing an alternative program.

Second, congressional policy development under these conditions will be more constrained. In unified party government, the majority in Congress usually doesn’t move too far afield from the White House. For example, when Republicans controlled the House during President George W. Bush’s first term, House Speaker Dennis Hastert routinely asked GOP lawmakers to reshape legislation so the White House would not have to veto any bills. The president’s party in Congress needs to coordinate closely with the White House. Democrats have not done that since 1993.

Third, Congressional Democrats will also have to re-adjust their communications strategies. For the past eight years, whether in the majority or minority in Congress, Democrats tried to offer an alternative message from Capitol Hill to the Bush White House. They created communications mechanisms through congressional leadership offices in the House and Senate to highlight their differences from the Republican administration. Now the same entities that opposed the president for the past eight years must communicate how and why they support him. They must move from telling Americans why the White House’s policies are wrong to showing why this president is right.

The skills and tactics required for these two different tasks are not always the same. Offense and defense are as different in governing as on the gridiron. Democrats may spend the first few months of 2009 on a steep learning curve, trying to figure out their new roles.

Congressional Republicans also face changed circumstances and an equally daunting learning curve. Despite President Bush’s sliding popularity in his second term, the congressional GOP labored with a Republican White House for eight years. No more.

This change is a two-edged sword. Presidents always dominate the communications agenda. No matter how hard Republicans tried to distance themselves from an unpopular president over the past several years, George W. Bush was the face of the party.

The GOP now enjoys a new freedom, but it’s accompanied by fresh challenges. First, without the White House bully pulpit, communicating becomes exponentially more difficult. It’s unclear how GOP lawmakers break through the cacophony of voices to deliver the party’s message. Americans pay less attention when the election is over and often care little about what the minority party has to say.

Moreover, confronting the White House includes its own set of challenges. Does opposing the new president and the congressional majority make Republicans look petty, vindictive and obstructionist? Does “going along” validate voters’ view that installing unified Democratic control was a good thing? Each approach - opposition or compromise - is tricky and fraught with risk.

This election will produce change in some less than obvious ways. The first unified Democratic government in more than a decade, along with Republicans learning to operate without a GOP White House after eight years, means new congressional roles and strategies. How quickly and effectively each party adapts will provide another engine for change in the next election cycle.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.

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