News & Politics

Friend or Foe?

As President Obama sets out the most ambitious agenda since FDR’s, he’s quickly learning that the people he needs to watch out for on Capitol Hill are fellow Democrats. From Speaker Nancy Pelosi to powerful and opinionated committee chairs, the President is finding that the keys to his success are often indistinguishable from the proverbial flies in the ointment.

Here are some of the Democrats to watch out for:

Nancy Pelosi. No one will have a greater say about Obama’s ultimate success than the House speaker, who has quickly proven—particularly in conversations with White House chief of staff and former congressman Rahm Emanuel—that she’s not interested in help from the White House in running her domain. On the Hill, you’re on her turf.

Patrick Leahy. His ongoing quest for a “truth-and-reconciliation commission” and his early call to dump Joe Lieberman from his position in the Democratic caucus show that the Vermont senator—now the body’s fourth in seniority and a rising star among the party’s grassroots-activist core—isn’t going to be quiet.

Heath Shuler. The former Redskins quarterback was known for throwing interceptions; in voting against the bank bailout and the stimulus, he’s proving to be helpful to the other side in Congress, too. Is he setting himself up to run for Senate in conservative North Carolina in 2010?

Jim Cooper. One White House pet the Obamas never considered was a Blue Dog—and with good reason: Blue Dog Democrats aren’t being particularly friendly or obedient. Fiscally conservative, Cooper and his fellow Blue Dogs don’t like measuring by the “trillion.”

Luis Gutierrez. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus isn’t finished with immigration, and it’s going to hold Obama to his campaign promises. With 24 members, the CHC can cause trouble if it wants to.

Henry Waxman. Nothing will move forward on energy and climate reform without the California congressman who upset John Dingell for control of the Energy and Commerce committee. He stands much taller than his five-foot-five height—and he’s more radical than Obama wants to be on the energy agenda.

Max Baucus. You don’t stay a Democratic senator from Montana by being liberal. The chair of the finance committee (read: taxes) could be a huge ally or a huge stumbling block for Obama as he tries to fund new programs.

John Murtha. The one thing Barack “Hope and Change” Obama doesn’t need is more press about Democrats, lobbying scandals, and “business as usual” in Washington. Murtha’s name is appearing in lots of articles about “FBI raids” and “ongoing investigations,” which could help sink the party’s approval ratings.

This article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here

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