By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 11/5/2008 6:38:03 PM ET 2008-11-05T23:38:03

Barack Obama faces mammoth challenges as the next president, including two wars and a tanking economy, but when he takes office Jan. 20 he will have an unusually wide array of political tools at his disposal.

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Strictly speaking, the U.S. presidency is a relatively weak office, constitutionally constrained by the founders’ choice to give the sole power to write and pass legislation to Congress and limited by the Senate’s authority to reject the executive’s most important appointments.

The real power of the office lies in the president’s political capital — his power not to command but to persuade —presidential scholar Richard Neustadt wrote in “Presidential Power,” the most influential examination of federal decision-making.

A president’s influence is tied directly to his ability to rally the public to his side, Neustadt wrote. The Constitution may take no notice of a president’s popularity, but popular presidents are powerful presidents.

On that level, Obama enters office with significant clout.

Obama won 52 percent of the popular vote, the most since George H.W. Bush in 1988 and the best showing for a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

And he could realistically claim a mandate with nearly two-thirds of the Electoral College. As of Wednesday afternoon, he had 349 electoral votes compared to 173 for Sen. John McCain, with North Carolina and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District left to declare.

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Obama “pulled in states, in some cases, that we haven’t pulled in in 40 years,” meaning

political leaders across the ideological spectrum will have to pay attention.

“I suspect we’ll get off to a pretty quick start,” Dean said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”

Moreover, Obama will have a supportive Congress to work with — not since 1993 has an incoming president had such strong majorities in both houses of Congress.

Democrats will hold 258 of the 435 seats in the House and at least 54 of the 100 seats in the Senate , where two independents also caucus with the party. Four seats remained undecided.

Michael Wolfe, a political scientist at Indiana University, said Obama could expect quick success in Congress, especially in the House, which he said would “definitely be pushing policy.”

While the Democratic showing did not result in a historic majority, “this is a very ideologically pure majority,” he said. “The Democrats are pretty liberal compared to their past majorities. This is a much more together party.”

Learning the lessons of Clinton
Democrats, in fact, said one of their biggest challenges would be to tamp down expectations, mindful of the pent-up demand from the party’s liberal base for quick action on issues like Iraq now that the hurdle of the Senate filibuster has been substantially reduced.

“We can’t turn it all around on a dime,” a top Democratic congressional staffer told NBC News, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Expectations are going to have to be managed.”

Congressional Democrats pointed to the experience of Bill Clinton, who they said “drove the wagon train right off the cliff” when he entered office in January 1993, quickly alienating lawmakers of both parties with controversial initiatives on health care policy, North American trade and gays in the military.

In his victory speech Tuesday night, Obama signaled that he would take a slower approach, cautioning that “the road ahead will be long” and that “we may not get there in one year or even one term.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who said it was imperative that Washington “govern from the middle,” welcomed the message and predicted that Obama would have significant success in Congress.

Pelosi promised a bipartisan approach to the new Congress, but she added, “Our increased numbers in the House better enable us to work closely with our new president for a vision for America and a plan to succeed.”

With the Republicans at their lowest ebb since 1994, rank-and-file members in the House may find that their best chance to have any hope of influencing legislation rests in their willingness to cross party lines, NBC’s Mike Viqueira reported.

In the Senate, Democrats should also be able to exercise far more control than they have now, because some Republicans probably would join them in efforts to break Senate on many bills and judicial appointments.

Democrats on Capitol Hill told NBC News that the first order of business in the House would be a new economic stimulus package, followed by two measures that were stalled by President Bush’s veto power: children’s health insurance and funding for embryonic stem cell research. They said those issues were chosen to demonstrate the difference between having a Democrat and a Republican in the White House.

“Our priorities have tracked Obama’s priorities for a long time,” Pelosi said. The American people have called for a new direction. They have called for change in America. This will be a wave upon a wave.”

NBC’s Mike Viqueira and NBC station WISE of Fort Wayne, Ind., contributed to this report.

Video: A change of power in Washington


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