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Ups and downs in history of one-party rule

If Obama wins and Democrats gain greater control in Congress, it could happen.

By Staff writer / October 28, 2008

Power team? Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill in July.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File



Washington may well be on the verge of becoming a one-party town, with Democratic Sen. Barack Obama looking strong to capture the presidency next Tuesday and Democrats poised to expand their majorities in both houses of Congress.

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The history of one-party rule in America is fraught with triumphs and peril.

Franklin Roosevelt swept into power in 1933 at a time of economic depression, and, with a Democratic congressional majority behind him, was able to enact a raft of legislation in just a few months. But in his second term, President Roosevelt overreached and ran afoul of his own party.

Two more recent presidents, Democrats Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, also began their tenure with congressional majorities – in Carter’s case, quite sizable ones – but with both men, the relationship grew tense. Carter enjoyed some success with Congress, but his outside-the-Beltway style, and the aides he brought with him from Georgia, often clashed with the Washington insiders.

With Clinton, the failures of his first two years – fueled by a cantankerous Democratic majority – cost his party control of both houses in the first mid-term elections. It was only when Clinton faced Republican majorities in Congress that his presidency took off.

For Senator Obama, should he become president, the most relevant historical example is President Franklin Roosevelt, says presidential historian Robert Dallek.

“We were in dire straits,” says Mr. Dallek. “As Roosevelt said himself in his first inaugural, ‘This country is asking for action and action now.’ That’s what he gave them. In the first 100 days, he passed 15 major pieces of legislation. He couldn’t have done it unless he had a crisis and strong party support.”

Obama, too, appears poised to push initiatives in a range of areas, including a second economic stimulus package, healthcare reform, changes to tax policy, and energy reform. He has also pledged to begin, right away, the process of withdrawing US troops from Iraq.

But Democrats say they are well aware that, even with expected strong majorities in both houses, there are no guarantees. The nation’s economic woes could put healthcare reform, an expensive proposition, on hold. By definition, a large majority means a broad coalition, with conservative Democrats side-by-side with liberals, all keeping an eye on their voters back home and working toward reelection. Democrats know that holding the coalition together will take work, and that they won’t necessarily have much time.

“The point is, if it doesn’t work, then two years later, voters can change it,” says Dallek. “That’s the advantage of this congressional system, in which the House has to be elected every two years.”

Still, in an election year that has gone strikingly the Democrats’ way, it is looking increasingly possible that the party can win large enough majorities to weather some setbacks and not lose their majorities in two years.