Barack Obama is likely to spend the next four years with one big advantage over his recent predecessors — a first term in the White House with his party in uninterrupted control of both the House and the Senate.
It’s an advantage no president has enjoyed since Jimmy Carter, and one that would offer Obama a unique opportunity to carry out his agenda.
In the House, where Democrats currently enjoy a 79-seat advantage, to regain control the GOP would need to pick up at least 40 seats, a result that has occurred just four times since 1950 — and would significantly surpass the Democratic routs in 2006 and 2008.
In the Senate, Republicans will likely need a 10-seat pickup in a chamber where double-digit gains have occurred just twice since 1950. Complicating matters, the GOP will be defending more seats than the Democrats in 2010 and must defend four open seats — three in key battleground states after a spate of recent retirements — compared to none as yet for the Democrats.
While the prospect of four uninterrupted years with his party in control of Congress is no guarantee of success, it would give Obama a luxury that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did not enjoy in their own first terms, even though both began with their party in control of Capitol Hill.
“President-elect Obama has a wonderful opportunity to do what he wants as president,” said former Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Texas), who served in Congress under five presidents, beginning with Carter. “Obviously the larger majority makes a lot of difference.”
Clinton had just two years of working with Democratic congressional majority before his party lost the House and Senate in the 1994 Republican landslide, and he was reduced to declaring that “the president is still relevant.”
Bush lost his GOP congressional majority just six months into his presidency, when a party switcher gave Democrats control of the Senate in June 2001. He did not gain the benefit of a Republican House and Senate again until January 2003 — meaning nearly half of his first term took place with a divided Congress.
While Bush governed with a Republican majority for four of his six remaining years in office, the size of the Republican contingent in the House and Senate was never close to that of the Democratic majorities that Obama will inherit next week.
“On the launch, the economic crisis, the size of his majority, the depth and breadth of it, the size of his win, and his party and his charisma puts a strong wind at his back,” said Patrick Griffin, who ran the Clinton White House's Office of Legislative Affairs. “The challenge is, how does he manage it?”
When it comes to determining the overall success of Obama’s first term, Stenholm believes the size of the Democratic majorities will matter less than how he chooses to wield them.
“The size of the majority helps because it allows you to move legislation, but if you move in a way that’s totally partisan, you’ll end up not getting much done,” he said.
David Keating, executive director of the anti-tax Club for Growth, warns that four years of single-party government poses political risk to Obama.
“I don’t think it will be good for him,” said Keating. “His real strength is that he’s a bipartisan or trans-partisan figure.”
All of this assumes, of course, that Obama will have a productive and collegial relationship with a Democratic congressional leadership and that his agenda dovetails with theirs — and with rank-and-file members. It doesn’t always work that way, especially among Democrats.
“This doesn’t guarantee a struggle-free administration, because Democrats have their own ideas and prerogatives and there will always be a healthy tension,” said Griffin. “The longer you are in the game those differences become mre obvious and harder to resolve.
“Conditions will change dramatically in six months, and a year from now, and those conditions will affect the relationship,” he said. “It’s hard to say what the dynamic will be six months from now, let alone three years from now. Party loyalty is only one factor in how people vote.”
Of course, as grim as the 2010 political landscape looks at the moment for Republicans, unforeseen circumstances could suddenly alter the equation. While few Republicans expect to win back control of either the House or the Senate in two years, midterm elections are historically unkind to the party in power.
“When one party controls everything and there’s any level of discontent, the gains [of the opposing party] are exaggerated,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Eighteen months is an eternity in this business.”