DEBORAH AMOS, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos, sitting in for Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
INSKEEP: Two things seemed clear as the president and Congress begin another year. One is that the president has won a lot of votes in Congress. The other is that even bigger challenges lie ahead, from Afghanistan to health care to the economy.
AMOS: In a moment, we'll hear what lawmakers think of the president's next steps. We'll also ask about some remarks about the president by Senate Leader Harry Reid.
INSKEEP: Analysis from Cokie Roberts this morning. We will start with a scorecard from the year just ended. It's a study by Congressional Quarterly, and it gave the president the highest score of any chief executive in more than half a century for winning votes in Congress when he took a strong position.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: In at least one way, President Obama has been no different from his predecessors. He's always ready to send a firm message to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
President BARACK OBAMA: It's a bill that will open the door to a better future for this nation, and that's why I urge members of Congress to come together and pass it.
(Soundbite of applause)
Pres. OBAMA: I urge members of Congress to act without delay, and all of us together. Democrats and Republicans should�
I urge members of Congress to rise to this moment, answer the call of history and vote yes for health-insurance reform for America.
GONYEA: All presidents demand specific action by Congress or, at least they ask for it, but when you look at the votes of 2009 in which President Obama made his preference clear, his success rate was unprecedented, according to John Cranford of Congressional Quarterly.
Mr. JOHN CRANFORD (Managing Editor, Congressional Quarterly): His success was 96.7 percent on all the votes where we said he had a clear position in both the House and the Senate. That's an extraordinary number.
GONYEA: CQ started scoring presidential success rates in Congress more than five decades ago. The previous high scores were held by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, with 93 percent; and Dwight Eisenhower, who scored 89 percent in 1953. CQ's Cranford notes that George W. Bush hit the high 80s in 2001, the year of 9/11.
Mr. CRANFORD: But Barack Obama surpassed them all.
GONYEA: A major reason for Mr. Obama's record high score this year is that he benefits from a lot of seats Democrats took away from Republicans in 2006 and 2008 elections, resulting in big majorities in the House and Senate for the president's party. But Sarah Binder, a congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution, says there is another key reason why he scored so well. She says he only took an official position on votes that were really important to him, those that he knew he had a very good chance of winning. He picked his battles carefully.
Ms. SARAH BINDER (Congressional Analyst, Brookings Institution): He can do that because he has been in the Senate. His staff has been in the House. He understands the process here. They are consummate, I think, congressional insiders in understanding how this works.
GONYEA: Binder says the intense partisanship in Congress these days, a condition underlined in a separate Congressional Quarterly vote study out today, meant that Democrats were more likely to rally around the president when he asked them to, if only to deny Republicans a victory. But another contributing factor here may prove more controversial for the president and his party. It is his willingness to negotiate and to compromise. For example, as much as the president said he wanted a public option as part of a health-care bill, the final legislation won't have one, but that's not counted as a loss for the president under the scoring of this survey. Again, Sarah Binder.
Ms. BINDER: Where's the public option? He is not winning on a public option vote. That's long ago been compromised away.
GONYEA: Such compromises have brought strong criticism from the liberal wing of the president's own party. But White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a Congress veteran himself, says compromise has a long, long history, one that makes it a great part of the democratic process.
Mr. RAHM EMANUEL (White House Chief of Staff): The question is, are you compromising a set of principles, or are you making adjustments to tactics, venues, roads, different ideas that still achieve the same objective? And they're not all the same - every compromise is not the same in weight.
GONYEA: On health care, for example, the White House insists that compromise was the only way to get the 60 needed votes in the U.S. Senate. Rahm Emanuel also cautions that having the president score so high on votes where he took a stand is not at all the same thing as having the White House get everything it wanted. If you tell him you can't do much better than 96.7 percent, he comes back with�
Mr. EMANUEL: You obviously don't know what a Jewish mother's perspective is.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GONYEA: But kidding aside, it will get tougher for the president in Congress this coming year as more and more members look to their own re-election, many in districts that voted for John McCain in 2008, and others in districts far from safe for the Democratic party.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.