updated 1/31/2007 3:55:40 PM ET 2007-01-31T20:55:40

To the dismay of Republicans and the shock of quite a few others who had expected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats to pursue a "San Francisco liberal" agenda, the course thus far has been surprisingly moderate and measured. Critics can still take solace that the first month of Democratic rule has not yet passed, and there is still plenty of time for the new majority to self-destruct. But they certainly haven't done anything yet that could be construed as endangering their fragile majority.

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At the same time, one could hardly say that their narrow 15-seat majority is secure. But it isn't just that many of the newly elected Democrats occupy districts that voted Republican for president in the last two elections. On a more fundamental level, the difficulty in changing the perception of Congress and how it performs is clear when you look at Congress' job approval ratings.

The Polling Report newsletter lists seven national polls conducted this month measuring Congress' job ratings, with approval scores ranging from as low as 31 percent to as high as 43 percent. The average is 34.4 percent.

Sounds pretty awful, right? But consider in the 60 national polls preceding the election, starting in mid-April, congressional approval averaged 27 percent, and in only 11 polls did the number get above 30 percent. The two highest were 36 percent and 40 percent, but most of the others above 30 percent were just above.

Public antipathy toward Congress is deeply engrained; trying to turn it around is akin to changing the direction of an aircraft carrier -- it only happens very slowly. Democrats had the luxury of attacking a much-maligned institution in 2006; in 2008 they must defend it and justify its performance.

Earlier this month, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll gave 1,007 adults a list of eight priorities for the federal government to address and asked which one should top the list. The war in Iraq came in first with 35 percent, followed by health care and job creation/economic growth at 15 percent each and terrorism with 13 percent. In single digits were illegal immigration, 8 percent; reducing the budget deficit, 5 percent; the environment, 3 percent, and energy/gas prices, 2 percent.

The poll was conducted Jan. 17-20, and had a 3.1-percent error margin.

The public relations firm Waggoner Edstrom bought several questions on RT Strategies' January 18-21 national omnibus poll (which also included the Cook Political Report questions) of 1,000 adults to test what proposals people would like the Democratic majority to make top priorities.

The results showed that while plenty of suggestions garner respectable, low double-digit levels of support, only a few jumped off the page.

On health care, for example, while 11 percent chose removing legal obstacles to allow using federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, and the same number chose making it easier to buy prescription drugs from other countries, 42 percent wanted to see children 18 and younger have some form of health insurance and 31 percent wanted to require the government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for those in the Medicare program.

Similarly, when asked the most effective way to cut overall energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, 19 percent each chose shifting from coal-fueled electric power to nuclear power plants and convincing more people to switch to energy-efficient appliances. But 55 percent wanted to require gas companies and car makers to develop more hybrid cars, cars that use a mix of gasoline and ethanol and cars that run on electricity.

This latter point was underscored in my mind Sunday when I took my 13-year-old son to the Washington Automobile Show and was stunned to see long lines and great attention paid to hybrid and electric vehicles as well as automaker exhibits on the progress being made in those areas.

As tempting as it must be for Democrats to embark on a bold and ambitious policy agenda, particularly after having been mired in the minority for a dozen years, the simple truth is that between the reality of narrow majorities and their decision to abide by pay-as-you-go spending and tax rules, their options are few and limited to relatively small-ticket items.

Ironically, congressional Democrats find themselves in a roughly similar situation to that faced by then President Bill Clinton in 1995, after devastating 1994 Democratic midterm election losses. Having failed to achieve a restructuring of the national health care system, the Clinton administration embarked on an agenda of fairly modest yet achievable policy objectives, acknowledging the limitations of their political situation but eager to make an effort and have something to show for that effort.

In "Magnum Force," Clint Eastwood's tough-guy character's great line is, "A man's got to know his limitations." This year, congressional Democrats seem to be very cognizant of their limitations, and while liberals and partisans might bemoan how modest the agenda is, it reflects reality.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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