Democrats Turn Page on History

Posted January 16, 2009 at 6:16pm

With today’s inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, Democrats in Congress are eagerly anticipating a new era of policy accomplishments even as they bask in the political glory of a moment many of them believed would never come.

From the Democratic Party’s “Old Bulls” in the House and Senate to its newer Members elected in the successive waves of 2006 and 2008, Obama’s ascension to the White House marks a long-sought-after opportunity to move the country leftward after a generation of Republican dominance.

But as the first African-American to take the presidential oath of office, Obama represents to many in Congress on both sides of the aisle the fulfillment of the nation’s founding promise and declaration that “all men are created equal.”

For the Congressional Black Caucus in particular, Obama’s inaugural address will serve as the ultimate bookend to the iconic speech delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

“Forty-five years ago, we were looking up towards the Capitol, and now we’ll be looking down at Mr. Lincoln’s Memorial,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was on stage with King on that August day when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech as part of a massive march for civil rights in the nation’s capital.

Obama is scheduled to be administered the oath at midday by Chief Justice John Roberts on a stage built upon the west steps of the Capitol that looks out onto the National Mall. Around 2 million people are expected to flood into Washington, D.C., to view the inaugural festivities, including celebrities, government dignitaries and Members of Congress.

Joseph Biden is scheduled to be sworn in as vice president by Justice John Paul Stevens just prior to Obama taking the oath to succeed President George W. Bush.

Obama used the Senate as a springboard to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, common in the 19th and early 20th centuries but a first since then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) won the presidency in 1960. Obama was elected to the Senate from Illinois in 2004 before resigning the seat in November; Biden served 36 years in the Senate from Delaware before being elected vice president.

Obama’s move into the Oval Office — the cherry on top of sweeping Democratic gains in November that saw the party expand its majorities to 257-177 in the House and at least 58-42 in the Senate — has left Republican Members with mixed emotions.

For Democrats, however, Inauguration Day is pure joy — the stuff political dreams are made of. Just four years ago, the tables were turned as Bush assumed a second term and Republicans celebrated another four years of White House control to go along with gains in their existing House and Senate majorities.

“It’s going to be this day like no other,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said. “It’s going to be an overwhelming feeling for so many of us.”

Special for virtually every Democrat on Capitol Hill, Obama’s inauguration carries particular import for the 41 members of the CBC. Many got their start in politics tearing down racial barriers as activists in the civil rights movement but are nonetheless still staggering at the thought that one of their own is about to move into the White House.

Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), born 62 years ago in the segregated South, said his parents preached “self-respect, dignity, hope and a belief that you could grow up and become president of the United States.” Green said that as he grew up in New Orleans and later in Houston, he witnessed the legal vestiges of Jim Crow laws tumble, only to be replaced by “covert discrimination.”

“I believed in my heart that it was possible for a black to become president, but I knew in my head it was improbable,” Green said. “I knew [racism] still existed. However, there was no acid test to ascertain how much or how little covert discrimination existed.”

“Barack Obama was the acid test,” Green continued. “His election has demonstrated that clearly, black Americans have come a long way.”

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama’s and the first House Member outside the Illinois delegation to endorse him two years ago, represents a younger generation of African-American leaders.

While many of his older CBC colleagues, including Lewis, endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Democratic primaries in part because they were slow to believe Obama could win, Davis said he rarely doubted the election’s outcome. Davis announced his then-lonely endorsement of Obama on Jan. 16, 2007 — the same day Obama released an online video declaring he was exploring a bid.

“I thought he’d be standing up there on the West Front of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2009, being sworn in as the next president of the United States,” said Davis, who is often mentioned as a future candidate for higher office.

Obama’s inauguration, the Congressman explained, “reaffirms my sense that America is a place of promise. And that’s not just about my political career, but the aspirations of all kinds of young people around our country.”

For those who have struggled, added CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), “this is a day to behold and celebrate.”

From the economy and taxes to health care and other social services, to foreign policy and national defense, Congressional Democrats are looking forward to enacting their agenda on key issues unfettered by Republican opposition. The GOP is in a deep hole in the House, while barely retaining the use of the filibuster in the Senate.

Obama’s assumption of control over the executive branch of government removes Bush’s hold on the veto pen, at last freeing Democrats on Capitol Hill from the political shackles that stopped them from enacting legislation and shaping foreign policy since they won back control of Congress in 2006.

But with a severely faltering economy, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the continuing threat of terrorism — to name but a few of the existing crises — the Democrats’ newfound power carries with it awesome responsibility. Democratic Congressional veterans, at least, appear to recognize that fact.

“We’ll have a truckload of problems and challenges,” Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said, reflecting upon the presidential inauguration as “about the most historic moment” he would witness in his nearly 50 years in Washington.

For Democratic Members who have felt an unproductive tension with the White House going back to the administration of President Bill Clinton, Obama’s move from Capitol Hill to the West Wing is of particular significance. Clinton and Bush both served as governors before becoming president, and brought to the office a disdain for Congress and how it works.

Because Obama and Biden both hail from the Senate, today’s inauguration is cause for cheer among Democrats on Capitol Hill — particularly in the Senate. Gone, Democrats believe, are the days of a White House that operates with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude.

“For the first time since 1960, two Senators have been elected president and vice president,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said. “This is a family, and so this is going to be a family affair on Tuesday.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.