Happy Together? Americans Love to Complain about Gridlock in Washington and Partisan Warfare between Presidents and Congress. Yet the Record Suggests That Unified Party Government Is No Panacea

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ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL, BARACK OBAMA PROMISED to bring change to Washington and a post-partisan, non-ideological approach to governing. In his first post-election press conference on November 7, he reiterated this hope: "I know we will succeed if we put aside partisanship and politics and work together as one nation."

These snowflakes of soothing rhetoric drift slowly down on a Capitol Hill power plant fueled by partisanship and politics. What will happen when the snow hits the furnace--where majority Democrats and their allied interest groups have long been denied their wishes by Republican presidents and Congresses? The question is not whether President Obama can forge an extrapolitical national consensus to solve problems, but how effectively he will be able to govern with his own party in the majority in Congress.

One should not assume that Obama will get everything he wants from congressional Democrats any more than they will succeed in getting him to sign off on all their pent-up demands. Not only does the spike in deficits from the financial bailout and economic recession impose severe constraints, but the history of unified party government suggests that it is no more a guarantor of success than divided government is of failure. Indeed, American chief executives from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan enjoyed some of their greatest successes in periods of divided government. In the end, what the people want and are willing to speak up for usually matters more than all the frantic maneuvering in Washington.

One of the features of the American system that most baffles visitors from parliamentary democracies is the paradox that it can create unified party government without total party unity. They find it hard to believe that our system was intentionally designed with internal checks and balances precisely in order to prevent hasty action and the concentration of too much power in any one place. As James Madison put it, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition:' And the Pennsylvania Avenue axis of power between the White House and the Capitol is aswirl with ambition. Even when politicians belong to the same party, they represent different geographic and demographic constituencies that often put them at odds with one another and their own party's president. The system was not designed for action. It typically reacts only when required by events, public opinion, and presidential prodding.

That is why the young scholar Woodrow Wilson dismissed the Madisonian system as outmoded. "As at present constituted," he wrote in his 1885 doctoral dissertation, Congressional Government, "the federal government lacks strength because its powers are divided, lacks promptness because its authorities are multiplied, lacks wieldiness because its processes are roundabout, lacks efficiency because its responsibility is indistinct and its action without competent direction."

As president, Wilson would reconcile himself to Madison's Constitution as a "living" and "evolving" document. Building on his admiration for the British system of responsible party government, Wilson gave us the first "legislative presidency" as he moved his New Freedom agenda through a Democratic Congress in his first two years. He did so by addressing joint sessions of Congress (a record 22 appearances over eight years); traveling frequently to Capitol Hill to meet with Democratic leaders and their committee lieutenants; holding informal press conferences; and even scheduling forums in the White House on whether he should sign legislation sent to him by Congress.

But the Capitol Hill experiences of the Obama administration are not likely to resemble those of Wilson, nor of the other great examples of "unified" party government, which gave us Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society.

FDR's presidency occurred under very unusual circumstances (notwithstanding some parallels to today's economic troubles). …