President Barack Obama is likely going to have a new mantra when it comes to working with Congressional Republicans in 2011: compromise, capitulate or give up.
Regardless of whether the GOP takes the House in November or just makes gains in both chambers, the reality is the same: Obama will have a more difficult time enacting his priorities. If the president wants to get anything done in the next Congress, he is going to have to negotiate with Republicans. No longer will Obama be able to cobble together a Democrat-only bill that passes with a bare majority, Democrats and Republicans say. And based on the partisanship and gridlock that have characterized Capitol Hill for the past year and a half, that may be no easy task.
"It's going to be a wake-up call after November for sure," one senior Senate GOP aide said.
"The goodwill the White House could have had and the momentum they did have in 2008 is gone. Republicans once used to talk in private about how difficult it would be to oppose policies from such a popular president, and that reluctance simply isn't there," the aide said.
A senior House Democratic aide said Obama will also have to do a better job of working with his own party. The aide cited the president's lack of coordination with Congress before he announced a $50 billion infrastructure proposal; it has gained no traction among Democrats wary of increasing federal spending before the midterm elections.
"I don't know that he will but he should, whether Democrats are in charge or not, start coordinating more closely with Hill Democrats. For instance, the recent economic proposals landed with a thud in Washington and around the country because zero groundwork was laid. That could have been a much better rollout and Members could have embraced it to a higher level instead of essentially ignoring it," the aide said.
Another senior Democratic Hill source put it more succinctly: "He has to engage more and not try to change the whole world with every bill. Aiming for some more broadly popular items and biting off a little less will endear him to many Members."
One of Obama's biggest hurdles may be that he has virtually no relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), the pair who will be leading his Congressional opposition.
"I can't think of a single person at the White House who has a friend on the other side of the aisle or has a feel for Republicans in Congress," a top Senate GOP aide said.
A senior Senate Democratic aide agreed that Obama does not know "who the hell John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are." But it only serves to benefit Democrats to showcase who they are, said this aide, because once they start putting substantive policy ideas on the table, "it's not going to be hard to figure out that the president is the adult in those debates."
Obama could always look for openings to bypass Congress altogether to further his agenda, namely through a heavier reliance on regulation over legislation. For example, some of his signature legislative issues over the past year — health care reform and financial reform — grant the administration broad powers over how to implement the new laws. The Environmental Protection Agency has also signaled it is prepared to take steps to regulate carbon emissions, an issue that Democrats failed to deliver on in Congress.
But whatever degree of engagement the president plans to have with Congress, Obama will still need to adapt his style of leadership to a rapidly changing political landscape. Obama will be looking to run for a second term in 2012, and undoubtedly his standing with the public will be a top priority. But Republicans are not going to make it easy and are unlikely to suddenly embrace bipartisanship. Rather, most expect GOP lawmakers will look to weaken Obama's electoral standing by objecting to his proposals and questioning his priorities.
Obama recently gave a preview of how he plans to shift his approach during a backyard town hall in Fairfax, Va. Looking ahead to 2011, Obama said Republicans and Democrats will have "a great opportunity to work together" on issues such as long-term debt. Additionally, he cited the prospect of both parties finding common ground on immigration reform and energy reform.
"I think there's an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to come together and to say, What are the tough decisions we've got to make right now?'" Obama said at the September event.
The president's conciliatory tone is a sharp contrast to the way he has framed Republicans this year, particularly in the weeks before the elections. He has tagged them as obstructionists, accused them of putting politics before their country and singled out Boehner as the face of the Bush-era policies that landed the economy in a ditch.
Not that a GOP-controlled Congress has to be all bad news for Obama. Democrats would no longer have to take all the blame for not being able to pass key legislation. And Obama could even chalk up some successes by leaning on the triangulation strategy used by President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. That is, Obama could position himself as a moderate and pit the extremes against the centrists in both parties.
Whatever the outcome of the midterm elections, administration officials maintain that Obama will not take a different tack when it comes to furthering his economic polices.
"We're aware that no matter what, there will be new legislators in Congress this fall. But our commitment to commonsense economic policies that grow the economy and create jobs will not change," a White House aide said.