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Obama builds relationship with Congress

The president-elect has gone out of his way to consult Congress on his economic stimulus package that could total $1 trillion, a strategy that's aimed at building a collegial relationship.
Obama Meets With Congressional Leaders, Economic Advisors In DC
President-elect Barack Obama met with Democratic and Republican congressional leadership, including left to right, House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio and Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

President-elect Barack Obama has gone out of his way to consult Congress on his economic stimulus package that could total $1 trillion, a strategy that's aimed at building a collegial relationship with lawmakers from the outset of his presidency.

"Congress is a coequal branch of government. We're not trying to jam anything down people's throats," Obama said recently as he lobbied for support of his plan and approval of the second installment of the $700 billion financial industry bailout.

To press his case, Obama visited Capitol Hill twice and dispatched top aides there several more times. He made dozens of telephone calls to both Republicans and Democrats to seek their input and, lawmakers say, actually listened to their ideas — even from Republicans.

Should it continue, Obama's collaborative approach with the Democratic-controlled House and Senate would mark a dramatic break from President George W. Bush's dismissive style with Congress, even when his GOP ran the show. It also would contrast sharply with the troubled relationships the two most recent Democratic presidents — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — had with their Capitol Hill counterparts.

"At this point, he is signaling a desire to change the tone," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University history and public affairs professor. "All presidents try to lay the groundwork for better relations but I do think he's trying to do it a bit more aggressively."

Yet, even before taking office Tuesday, Obama also has shown he won't hesitate to use executive power to get what he wants.

He recently told ABC's "This Week" that if his stimulus plan isn't ready by mid-February, "Congress was going to hear from me." Privately — and reluctantly according to aides — he told Senate Democrats last week he would veto any effort to block the bailout money.

A veto wasn't necessary; the Senate signed off after Obama said his administration would track the taxpayers' money closely — something the Bush administration has not done — and use some to help people facing foreclosure.

Several Democrats said they didn't feel strong-armed.

"He indicated he was firmly convinced that this was necessary. It wasn't my way or the highway," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "This is someone who is showing a lot of respect to the legislative branch."

Still, for all the warm talk now, there's no certainty that Obama's attentiveness — or Congress' receptiveness — will last.

Indeed, Democratic leaders recently put Obama on notice they won't always agree to his wishes. Said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "I do not work for Barack Obama. I work with him."

As presidents before Obama have learned, even the strongest relationship can easily fray when the administration's agenda bumps up against the politics of the 535-member House and Senate.

There's also little indication, thus far, that Obama will undo most of the executive-power expansions Bush put in place as he sought to skirt Congress to push his agenda.

Aides say Obama's approach with Congress reflects his personality. They say he prefers to weigh a range of viewpoints and reach consensus to solve problems rather than dig in on a certain position and fight. They also say he has a deep appreciation for and understanding of legislative bodies given his own experiences.

He was in the Illinois Senate for eight years, and in the U.S. Senate for four. He chose a vice president, Joe Biden, who has been in the Senate for 36 years, and his Cabinet is made up of several people from the House or Senate, including Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Obama also has stocked his White House with House and Senate veterans skilled at navigating the politics from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. They include incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a former Chicago congressman who was in Democratic leadership, and Capitol Hill liaison Philip Schiliro, who has more than 25 years of congressional experience.

There's also a political calculation to Obama's outreach.

"A shrewd president tries to cultivate Congress," said Don Ritchie, the Senate's associate historian.

Obama, who proved himself a shrewd candidate, no doubt is aware of the pitfalls of failing to accomplish his top priority early in his administration.

Certainly he's mindful of the need to secure support from both Republicans and Democrats, given the enormous amount of new spending he's seeking. Getting GOP support also would give Obama — and his Democrats — some measure of political cover in upcoming elections.

The reviews are mostly positive so far.

"This seems to be an administration willing to work with you, rather than the previous (Bush) administration that's willing to work on you," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said.

Even Republicans offer cautious praise.

"He's setting a nice tone," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said, noting that Obama's team has been reaching out to GOP leaders even though expanded Democratic majorities don't necessitate it.

"So far, so good," added Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. He contends that Bush's "robust view of executive power" hurt him tremendously.