Time‘s Michael Scherer has a good piece on the dynamics between the Obama administration and congress:
So it has gone in the first four months of the new Administration. Despite Obama’s early legislative victories — including passage of the largest stimulus bill in history — the new President has learned how limited his power can be, even when the Democrats control Congress. While much of the political chatter continues to focus on the waning Republican opposition, Obama’s real challenge comes from within his own party. With increasing frequency, Democrats have been scratching away at the promises Obama made during his campaign, watering down reforms, removing possible revenue sources and protecting key constituencies. “I am under no illusions that suddenly I’m going to have a rubber-stamp Senate,” Obama said during his most recent prime-time press conference. “I’ve got Democrats who don’t agree with me on everything, and that’s how it should be.” What he did not say aloud, but many whisper in Congress, is that those Democrats could determine — or undermine — his legislative legacy.
It seems to me that this is a major institutional asymmetry between the two parties. Congressional Republicans from 2003-2006 showed a strong disposition to pass as much conservative legislation as they felt they could get away with politically whereas large numbers of congressional Democrats seem genuinely inclined to try their utmost to block progressive reform. You can see this in the fact that many Democrats break with the administration position not just on high-profile finally “yes or no” votes, but engage in root-and-branch procedural obstruction in committees and on cloture motions.
I think we should understand that one of the main “lessons learned” from the Carter and Clinton administrations was that it’s counterproductive for the President to “pick fights” with important members of congress. Thus, the administration has tended to bend-but-not-break in the face of this kind of thing. But to push the pace of substantive change forward, progressives will need to find a way to change congress.