As the lame-duck Congress marks the end of unified Democratic rule in Washington, President Barack Obama faces a starkly changed political dynamic.
Will he admit failure by moving to the center or stubbornly double down?
The White House pushed its agenda in the face of public opposition for the last two years and the results were sobering and irrefutable — the largest Republican wins in the House of Representatives since 1938, a net gain of six U.S. Senate seats, an increase of at least 680 state legislative seats (giving them more than at any time since 1928, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures) and a gain of 19 legislative chambers. Republicans now hold 29 governors’ offices, including a majority of the ones in swing states. In two years Republicans washed away all the House seats Democrats picked up since 2006, and then some.
President Obama and his political advisers will learn a costly lesson, one they could have learned after losing the 2009 governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey and the February 2010 special election for the U.S. Senate in deep blue Massachusetts. Apparently the White House doesn’t agree with the adage that there is “no education in the second kick of a mule.”
Obama was able to push his agenda without facing the voters, a luxury he no longer has. And Democrats are leery of the White House, which has proven to be politically tone-deaf and cost dozens of Democrats their careers.
Every day the White House will be making policy decisions with one political goal in mind — will this help us win reelection?
This is a very different calculus than Rahm Emanuel’s “never let a crisis go to waste.” Obama cannot pursue a rigid liberal agenda over the next two years. For one thing it would never pass the House and for another he would be destroyed by the Republican nominee in 2012.
President Obama really only has two choices: find areas of agreement with Republicans and compromise to get things done or continue to stubbornly carve out an agenda that only 30-35% of Americans truly want.
Some have suggested that Obama “pull a Clinton” by triangulating with Republicans. But there are two key differences between Obama and Clinton.
First, Clinton was a centrist Democrat by nature, not a raging liberal. Obama has never been a centrist and his Senate voting record was among the most liberal out of all 100 senators.
Second, Clinton did not face a potential threat from his left in a primary, and persistent rumors of a challenge from Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean or Russ Feingold abound around the Beltway. Clinton was freer to move to the middle, while Obama will constantly feel threatened from his left.
The next two years are likely to result in complete gridlock. Republicans control the House, where all spending bills originate. Democrats control the Senate with 53 seats, which means they control the floor but cannot break a Republican filibuster. Exactly 23 Democrats in the Senate face reelection, while only 10 Republicans do — meaning vulnerable Democrats from Missouri, Florida, Nebraska, Virginia and Montana may all be looking to work with Republicans. Feel-good legislation will pass the House and either die in the Senate or be watered down. Conference negotiations will be make-or-break. President Obama will face several difficult choices regarding vetoes.
President Obama seemed to co-opt an earlier Republican proposal recently by freezing pay for federal workers, a mostly symbolic move that saves only $5 billion over two years and exempts those who work in the legislative branch.
On the bigger issues, Obama should cut a deal on the expiring tax cuts early in the next Congress to give Republicans their pound of flesh. He should also work with Republicans on bipartisan, bilateral trade deals and spend every day talking about the economy.
The real fight will come when House Republicans zero out implementation of Obamacare and threaten to shut down the government over it.
Obama will face a choice which may seal his electoral fate: accept failure now or accept failure later. The mule is still kicking.
Matt Mackowiak managed the campaign of Rep.-elect Bill Flores (R-Texas) and former Senate Press Secretary and is President of Potomac Strategy Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.