The dramatically transformed political landscape created by Tuesday’s election puts a heavy burden on President Barack Obama and the GOP leadership to change their approach to the issues and to each other.
Otherwise, the result will be more partisan gridlock, something that would be bad for the country and for whichever side the voters blame two years from now.
Obama needs to reach out to the GOP as a party, seeking common ground with its leaders as a group, instead of just lobbying individual Republicans to back his programs.
That may mean changing his approach on some issues, seeking compromises on trade, energy and the extension of Bush-era tax cuts and trying to develop common areas for cutting federal spending.
Similarly, Republicans have to drop their insistence that Obama accept their approach on major policies and go beyond generalities about cutting spending to accept substantive compromises on an overall approach to long-term deficit control, including taxes.
After Tuesday’s sweeping GOP victories, Obama and top Republican leaders expressed predictable generalities about working together. But neither showed much sign of moving off pre-election stances.
John Boehner, scheduled to become the next House speaker, said the GOP wants to extend the Bush tax cuts and repeal Obama’s health care plan. Obama said he didn’t think the American people wanted “to spend the next two years refighting the political battles of the last two” but added he is open to compromises on energy and education.
They will get a chance to show they can work together when Congress returns in 10 days for its lame-duck session. Lawmakers will have to deal with extending the Bush tax cuts, lest they expire at year’s end, and the government’s spending authority, which runs out Dec. 3.
One place for both to show flexibility will be within Obama’s bipartisan debt commission, which faces a Dec. 1 deadline for proposing a long-term deficit control plan that could involve taxes, annual federal spending and entitlements.
That could require Democrats to agree to curb some future Social Security benefits and Republicans to accept some tax increases. And both parties face internal pressures that make compromises difficult.
The Republicans could be caught between independents who gave them a share of the power to govern, in hopes of spurring efforts to seek common ground, and tea party activists who want them to stand firm for conservative principles against compromise.
These contradictory forces could collide when Congress votes early next year on extending the legal ceiling on the national debt.
The GOP’s new responsibility to share governing makes it far harder for its leaders to oppose this as a symbolic protest against federal spending, because one result could be to prevent the government from functioning.
Democrats, meanwhile, could be caught between their desire to maintain Obama’s course, in the belief it ultimately will prove correct, and the broader electorate’s pressure for changes.
He did say he is open to proposals that would improve his health care plan but made clear he’ll resist GOP efforts to repeal it or block funds to implement it.
One way for Obama to signal he understands voter dissatisfaction would be to revamp a White House staff whose communications and political operatives have ill-served his presidency. None of this will be easy.
Obama indicated he is likely to resist any but the most modest changes to his basic agenda, lest he further upset party liberals who believe he already has compromised too much.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell already signaled GOP desire to maintain its negative approach by declaring his main goal is to deny Obama re-election.
For both sides, the stakes are large. The same voters who blamed Obama and the Democrats for the persistence of national economic problems also have shown they won’t hesitate to find a different target next time.
— Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. firstname.lastname@example.org