Barack Obama's historic victory Tuesday night means Democrats will be in control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time since 1995 – a one-party sweep that is lifting public expectations for what government can do to improve the lives of Americans.
But as election results continue to trickle in Wednesday, Democrats stand to pick up at least 16 seats in the House of Representative and at least five in the Senate – adding to their big gains in 2006 campaign cycle and giving the new president stronger working majorities in Congress.
The only vestige of conservative control is the US Supreme Court, but even that may shift, as Mr. Obama starts sending any judicial nominations to a Senate now more likely to back them.
If history has any lessons for a new president, however, it’s that one-party control doesn’t ensure that a new president can move his legislative agenda or meet public expectations for change.
The Obama administration also faces formidable challenges, including a budget deficit near a record-shattering $1 trillion by the time Obama is sworn into office in January.
Even as Democrats rejoice in their victory, they’re already discussing how to manage these new expectations: from voters, eager to see economic relief; from liberal interest groups, looking for a reward for their campaign efforts; and from powerful committee chairs on the Hill, eager to move their own agenda items blocked by eight years of a Republican presidency.
Previous Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, came to power with the support of enthusiastic and ardent supporters. “But figuring out how to bring the energy of a campaign and the power you have with the electorate, and translating it into a legislative program, is extremely difficult,” says Mr. Zelizer. “The divisions within the new Democratic majority can be as difficult as between Republicans and Democrats.”
For example, liberal Democrats are already pressing for a new economic stimulus plan in the range of $150 billion to $500 billion. Fiscally conservative “blue dog” Democrats, on the other hand, want entitlement reform and guarantees that any new spending or tax cuts will be paid for with offsetting budget cuts.
Then there are the expectations of interest groups, such as labor unions, civil rights activists, and others, who fought for an Obama victory.
“Obama is becoming president just in the nick of time, because working people are facing the worst economic crisis in our lifetime, and the country needs a tremendous effort by the federal government to turn the economy around,” says Bruce Raynor, general president of Unite Here and leader of Change to Win, a coalition representing some 6 million union members that supported Obama since early in the Democratic primary.
"He has a lot to thank working people for,” he adds. “Congress has a very able group of leaders, and you’re going to see some significant steps forward.”
A top priority of labor, adds Mr. Raynor, is to quickly move a stimulus plan that is large enough to make a difference in the lives of working Americans.
"To limit the stimulus to $150 billion, as some Democrats have proposed, is ludicrous," he says. "It’s a deep crisis. Were going to have to bail out the auto industry. And we have to find a way to provide healthcare for huge portions of the population that don’t have it now.”
Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, which claims to have turned out some 6.5 million women to support Democratic abortion-rights candidates, also sees a pent-up demand for more government action.
"There will be big significant changes that he’s going to do to help the economy and some other issues he can do very quickly to signal that it’s a different Washington now," she says. "I hope that the excitement of the Obama presidency will bring in the best and the brightest to repair government itself. We saw it with [hurricane] Katrina: The government is broken."
For Democrats, the lessons of the first two years of the Clinton presidency are especially relevant as an object lesson in how not to manage a new administration. From an early focus on gays in the military and tough negotiations with Congress over a budget to a massive (and ultimately failed) healthcare-reform plan, the Clinton administration overreached in its first two years, opening the door to a Republican takeover of the House in 1995, Democrats say.
“Obviously, the first priority for a new president is to set priorities and determine what’s the most important things to try to get done,” says Leon Panetta, President Clinton’s former chief of staff. “If you pick the wrong issue or a divisive issue or one that you lose on, it will undermine your ability to deal with other issues.”
But Obama could have an advantage heading into his first term, adds Mr. Panetta. Despite public frustrations and expectations, “the one thing he has is a bond with those voters. They trust him, and he has to be willing to tell them the truth.”
On the Senate side, Democrats are projected to pick up five seats, giving them a majority of 56 to 40 seats, with four too close to all. GOP incumbents in Alaska, Minnesota, Georgia, and Oregon are fighting off strong Democratic challengers. Meanwhile, former Gov. Mark Warner (D) easily won the seat of retiring Sen. John Warner (no relation) in the new battleground state of Virginia. In North Carolina, another new battleground state, newcomer Kay Hagan, a Democratic state senator, toppled Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a two-time GOP cabinet member. Reps. Mark and Tom Udall (cousins) won open seats in New Mexico and Colorado. Former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) defeated Sen. John Sununu, who had defeated her in the 2002 Senate race.
On the House side, Democrats increased their majority to at least 251, with 173 seats for Republicans; 11 House races are still too close to all. With the defeat of 11-term Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, they also voted Republicans out of their last House seat in New England.
Democrats picked up a net of at least 16 seats in the House, including winning 10 open seats and ousting 10 Republican incumbents. As of press time, four Democratic incumbents were defeated. After losing to the incumbent by 329 votes in 2006, high school teacher Larry Kissel defeated five-term Rep. Robin Hayes (R) of North Carolina. Two GOP incumbents, Reps. Tom Feeney and Ric Keller, were ousted in Florida.
“An important part of that change will be bipartisanship, civility, and fiscal responsibility,” she said.