Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton Steve Helber/AP

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The Clinton Agenda's Two Possible Paths

If Hillary Clinton wins, would she emulate the President Obama who racked up big early legislative victories? Or the one who had to lean on executive actions?

Repub­lic­ans like to say that a Hil­lary Clin­ton pres­id­ency would provide a pro­ver­bi­al third term for Pres­id­ent Obama.

But when it comes to Clin­ton’s suc­cess or fail­ure with Con­gress, the “third term” concept could mean one of two things—either that she’ll shep­herd ma­jor le­gis­lat­ive vehicles in­to law, or that she’ll be sty­mied by Re­pub­lic­ans and fo­cus mostly on ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions and small-ball bills. And the path she fol­lows could largely be out of her hands.

Obama’s early days, es­sen­tially the first year and a half, were marked by a series of mam­moth le­gis­lat­ive wins—the stim­u­lus pack­age, Obama­care, and the Dodd-Frank law to re­vamp fin­an­cial reg­u­la­tion.

But once Obama lost his fili­buster-proof ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate in early 2010 and the Re­pub­lic­ans took con­trol of the House the fol­low­ing year, Obama’s days of steer­ing big, big stuff through Con­gress were ba­sic­ally over. (His struggles even spawned a cot­tage in­dustry among pun­dits for who could make the best “If only Obama were bet­ter at schmooz­ing Re­pub­lic­ans” case.)

So if Clin­ton beats Don­ald Trump in Novem­ber, which ver­sion of Obama would she be­come?

Wil­li­am Gal­ston, a former policy ad­viser to Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton, says the pos­sib­il­ity of a big win that hands back con­trol of Con­gress to Demo­crats can’t be ruled out. But even if that doesn’t hap­pen, he pre­dicts that a Pres­id­ent Hil­lary Clin­ton would not open her pres­id­ency with a strong fo­cus on max­im­iz­ing ex­ec­ut­ive power the way Obama has done in re­cent years.

“I doubt very much that she would want to be­gin with a series of as­ser­tions of ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity,” said Gal­ston, who’s now with the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

“I would ex­pect un­der those cir­cum­stances that she and her trans­ition team would be sit­ting down with the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship—as­sum­ing that there is any—and say, ‘Look, we can either con­tin­ue the dead­lock of the past six years, and look at where that has got­ten our polit­ic­al parties, both of them, or we can try for a dif­fer­ent way of do­ing the na­tion’s busi­ness, and I’m will­ing to try if you’re will­ing to try,’” he said.

Clin­ton, the pre­sumptive Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, has lots of big le­gis­lat­ive goals that she wants to move out of the start­ing gate.

For in­stance, Clin­ton has said that she would quickly press Con­gress on im­mig­ra­tion re­form, send law­makers a sweep­ing $275 bil­lion in­fra­struc­ture pro­pos­al with­in 100 days, and seek fast ac­tion on rais­ing the na­tion­al min­im­um wage to $12-per-hour.

Her early agenda, laid out in a Janu­ary de­bate, would also build on Obama­care (her plan now in­cludes al­low­ing people as young as 50 or 55 to buy in­to Medi­care), and she men­tioned her cam­paign fin­ance plans, which in­clude a long-shot bid to over­turn the Su­preme Court’s Cit­izens United de­cision via con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment.

But Clin­ton’s wide-ran­ging policy pro­pos­als on health care, in­fra­struc­ture, cli­mate and en­ergy, and oth­er is­sues also con­tain ini­ti­at­ives that do not need con­gres­sion­al ac­tion, even though it’s of­ten a more lim­ited agenda.

Take cam­paign fin­ance re­form, for in­stance. Her web­site states:

“Hil­lary will push for le­gis­la­tion to re­quire out­side groups to pub­licly dis­close sig­ni­fic­ant polit­ic­al spend­ing. And un­til Con­gress acts, she’ll sign an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der re­quir­ing fed­er­al gov­ern­ment con­tract­ors to do the same. Hil­lary will also pro­mote [a Se­cur­it­ies and Ex­change Com­mis­sion] rule re­quir­ing pub­licly traded com­pan­ies to dis­close polit­ic­al spend­ing to share­hold­ers.”

The down-bal­lot elect­or­al map means she could be driv­en to use Obama’s second-term play­book, do­ing what she can through reg­u­la­tion—and fight­ing in the courts to keep it in­tact. Even if Demo­crats win back the Sen­ate, they’re un­likely to flip the 14 seats needed for a fili­buster-proof ma­jor­ity, while tak­ing back the House is also a tall or­der.

“Clin­ton as pres­id­ent is go­ing to face a very dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al and gov­ern­ing real­ity than Obama did when he first took of­fice,” said John Hudak, a gov­ern­ment ex­pert who is also with Brook­ings.

Still, even without a friendly Con­gress, Clin­ton would have a chance to move im­port­ant le­gis­la­tion, said former Rep. George Miller, a long­time House Demo­crat who did not seek reelec­tion in 2014.

Miller, in an in­ter­view, says there’s room for deal-mak­ing on in­fra­struc­ture—the phys­ic­al sort, as well as en­han­cing sup­port for the na­tion’s re­search agen­cies.

And more broadly, he ar­gues that Clin­ton’s his­tory in the Sen­ate and ca­reer be­fore that make her bet­ter poised to work with Con­gress than Obama, who came in with a short­er polit­ic­al résumé.

Miller and oth­ers cred­it Clin­ton with for­ging re­la­tion­ships on both sides of the aisle dur­ing her stint as a sen­at­or from New York from 2001 un­til she be­came Obama’s sec­ret­ary of State in 2009.

“There is the hard busi­ness of get­ting things done. She has been part of that; she has seen both the suc­cess and the fail­ures,” Miller said.

He cites her re­la­tion­ships with Demo­crats—such as New York col­league Chuck Schu­mer, whom she worked with in re­sponse to the Sept. 11 at­tacks—and col­leagues across the aisle, in­clud­ing GOP Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der.

“She has worked with­in that pro­cess, and I think that is a real big ad­vant­age for her,” he said.

Hudak, mean­while, sees room for pro­gress on an agenda that’s less am­bi­tious than Obama’s wave of le­gis­lat­ive suc­cesses, but cap­able of get­ting sup­port across the aisle. He can en­vi­sion deals in areas such as in­fra­struc­ture, crim­in­al justice re­form, and fight­ing opioid ab­use.

“She will prob­ably have some suc­cesses early on with some le­gis­la­tion, but she is go­ing to have to dial it back,” Hudak said. “She is not go­ing to be able to push for everything she wants in her agenda in the way that Obama was really able to early on.”