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Commentary: Why Congress must be Obama's equal partner

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: People are hoping for strong leadership from Barack Obama
  • He says there's a danger of expecting too much from the president
  • Zelizer says history shows Congress plays vital role in crafting policy
  • Obama must make sure Congress is an equal partner, Zelizer says
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.

Julian Zelizer says hope for Obama's administration needs to include a key role for Congress.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- Tens of millions of people are expecting great things from President-elect Barack Obama.

With his announcement of a plan for a bold public works program to revitalize the nation, there is anticipation once again among Americans about what a president can accomplish.

Many Americans -- center, left and right -- are hoping the White House can deliver the nation out of its economic crisis.

Even Democrats, who have spent the past eight years railing against excessive executive power, seem comfortable, even downright eager, for presidential action.

There is a real danger that in the desperation for assistance and the enthusiasm about Obama, Americans will overlook the limits of a president-centered government. This is no time to continue with an imperial presidency. Indeed, just the opposite.

Congress must be made a full partner in Obama's economic recovery program, or else he will not enjoy the same kind of success or legitimacy as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did with the New Deal, particularly in FDR's first term.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Congress can act as an enormously productive institution, initiating ideas that presidents are reluctant to embrace and shaping public debate over the nation's biggest problems.

What Congress offers is the ability to design domestic programs that have strong bipartisan support, such as Social Security or Medicare, because they come out of the messy legislative process that can produce durable compromise among a broad spectrum of the country's representatives.

The New Deal should be a model for Democrats, yet not because of FDR. The New Deal Congress was not a passive institution.

It showed that members of Congress, who are often in safe seats, are sometimes willing to take bigger chances than a president who feels constrained by having to run in a competitive race for re-election.

Many of the New Deal programs we remember most did not come from the White House. For instance, FDR opposed proposals for expansive public relief programs on the grounds they cost too much money and were wasteful.

Sen. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, who had been fighting against Herbert Hoover's opposition to unemployment assistance since 1931, teamed up with Colorado's Edward Costigan to persuade the president to sign onto the Federal Emergency Relief Act.

When FDR sent Congress a bill in March 1933, it was legislation that La Follette and his colleagues had been working on for a good while, legislation they had convinced FDR was essential to the nation.

The role of Congress can also be seen in the New Deal banking reforms. In 1933, many members of Congress wanted to pass legislation that would separate commercial and investment banking and would guarantee deposits.

The American Bankers Association called the measure "unjust and dangerous." FDR, agreeing with the bankers, warned Americans that "you guarantee bad banks as well as good banks and the minute the government starts to do that the government runs into a probable loss."

But Virginia Democratic Sen. Carter Glass, Michigan Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg and Democratic Rep. Henry Steagall would not take no for an answer. They built a strong coalition that was prepared to pass reforms whether FDR wanted them or not. Facing an embarrassing defeat, the president relented.

Congress can also put together innovative compromises that command bipartisan support and produce long-lasting legislation. Sen. Robert Wagner of New York was another moving force behind the New Deal. He played a large role in programs such as the National Labor Recovery Act, unemployment insurance, public housing, Social Security and labor reform.

Wagner was a master legislator, an unassuming presence who knew how to work behind closed doors. According to one reporter, the senator "relies on his persuasiveness in the cloak room more than debate on the floor to win support for his measures."

Wagner was so influential that one political scientist has written that "one reading of the significance of the 1932 election might be: it produced a president who would sign Wagner's bills."

FDR had been resistant to many of the senator's proposals, such as the bill that would eventually become the Wagner Act, which offered federal protection to workers.

As FDR became more removed from Congress in the second term, the consequences were severe.

In the aftermath of the controversy over Roosevelt's unsuccessful Supreme Court-packing plan and a proposal for executive reorganization, a conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans emerged and started using the congressional committee system to block the president's progress on a number of crucial issues.

If we are to have another New Deal to lift the nation out of its economic crisis and introduce a new era of American politics, Obama needs to work with Congress rather than trying to spearhead reform through the legislative branch.

Democrats in Congress are already showing independence from the new administration.

Last week, Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, called for more involvement from Obama in responding to the economic crisis.

"At a time of great crisis with mortgage foreclosures and autos, he says we only have one president at a time; I'm afraid that overstates the number of presidents we have. He's got to remedy that situation."

Congress can be a hotbed of good ideas, and members have a good ear for what will work politically and what will fail. While Congress can certainly make poor decisions, the legislative process, as messy and chaotic as it usually seems, can also result in the kinds of deal-making that are essential to creating programs at difficult moments like these.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

All About Barack ObamaFranklin D. RooseveltDomestic Policy

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