Ups and downs in history of one-party rule

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Washington may well be on the verge of becoming a one-party town, with Democratic Sen. Barack Obama looking strong to capture the presidency next Tuesday and Democrats poised to expand their majorities in both houses of Congress.

The history of one-party rule in America is fraught with triumphs and peril.

Franklin Roosevelt swept into power in 1933 at a time of economic depression, and, with a Democratic congressional majority behind him, was able to enact a raft of legislation in just a few months. But in his second term, President Roosevelt overreached and ran afoul of his own party.

Two more recent presidents, Democrats Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, also began their tenure with congressional majorities – in Carter’s case, quite sizable ones – but with both men, the relationship grew tense. Carter enjoyed some success with Congress, but his outside-the-Beltway style, and the aides he brought with him from Georgia, often clashed with the Washington insiders.

With Clinton, the failures of his first two years – fueled by a cantankerous Democratic majority – cost his party control of both houses in the first mid-term elections. It was only when Clinton faced Republican majorities in Congress that his presidency took off.

For Senator Obama, should he become president, the most relevant historical example is President Franklin Roosevelt, says presidential historian Robert Dallek.

“We were in dire straits,” says Mr. Dallek. “As Roosevelt said himself in his first inaugural, ‘This country is asking for action and action now.’ That’s what he gave them. In the first 100 days, he passed 15 major pieces of legislation. He couldn’t have done it unless he had a crisis and strong party support.”

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