Expect President Barack Obama to take a vastly different approach to Congress over the next two years: he’ll be seeking out any opportunities for bipartisanship and leaning more on executive power than legislative action as he begins his first foray into divided government.
Obama will have to work with Republicans in the 112th Congress more than ever before, not just because they control the House now but because his 2012 re-election campaign may depend on it.
“He needs to actively demonstrate, as he did during the lame duck and will do during the State of the Union, that it’s possible to find common ground with the Republican majority in the House and a more tightly divided Senate,” said Rich Tarplin, a Democratic strategist who previously served in the Clinton administration. “When the inevitable pushback has to come, he’ll have the credibility to say, ‘Now the Republicans are being extreme’ and have the public understand that he’s not speaking from a partisan perspective.”
Jack Howard, a GOP lobbyist who previously served in President George W. Bush’s administration, described the “interesting paradox” that Obama will face as he tries to work more with Republicans while still fighting with them to protect his past accomplishments, namely health care reform.
“Now the House GOP will be on offense, and Obama, in order to accomplish anything, will have to fit his agenda into their priorities,” Howard said. “At the same time, Obama will have to be on defense on the things he cares about and the things he got done in the first two years. So he and his team are going to be pretty sophisticated in what fights he picks — and which ones he ducks.”
The president has already shown that he’s ready to recalibrate. In the weeks after the November elections that left Democrats without control of the House and with a tighter majority in the Senate, Obama cut a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to expedite passage of a tax extender package and announced a slew of staff changes that signal a more centrist, business-friendly approach to governing.
Most notably, the president tapped former Commerce Secretary and Wall Street executive William Daley as his new chief of staff. The pick sent a strong signal that the White House is ready to rebuild its frayed relationship with the corporate world, a new tack being hailed by Republicans and bemoaned by liberals.
Obama has also begun to beef up use of his executive powers in place of legislative action — a trend likely to continue now that Democrats no longer control the House. Earlier this month, Obama issued an executive order and two memorandums to jump-start his regulatory strategy. Without even having to go through Congress, the president was able to direct all federal agencies to review their health and safety regulations to look for aspects that are too burdensome on business, in which case they may be changed or eliminated. He also required agencies to, for the first time, provide written justification when they do not show flexibility in their proposed regulations.
But when it comes to legislative successes, House and Senate aides in both parties agree that Obama will need to bring in the GOP on his proposals from the start if he wants to get anywhere in the next two years.
“He can’t give them any room to complain about process. It might not work, but if he can illustrate to the American public that’s he trying to be inclusive, he wins points,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said.
Another top Democratic aide predicted that much of the president’s success over the next two years will depend on the posture of House Republicans.
“Do they tack far to the right and is every bill they bring to the floor a ‘repeal this, deny that’ bill? Or is that an occasional flare up and do they decide to, in general, take a more moderate approach?” this aide said. “The wildcard is the House, and no one knows which version will show up on any given day.”
A senior Senate Republican aide said Obama will find some success in advancing his agenda if he picks issues that already have GOP support.
“Trying to force partisan, controversial issues through the Senate won’t lead to a productive year,” the GOP aide said.
Party leaders have put forward their own ideas about what they want to see Obama do over the next two years.
During a press event earlier this month, McConnell pointed to a handful of areas where he sees the potential for common ground, including tax reform, trade agreements and entitlement reform.
But the Kentucky Republican cautioned that Obama will get nowhere on any of those fronts if he approaches Republicans in a partisan manner.
“I’ve made it clear to them and I’ll say again today: Entitlement reform will only be done on a bipartisan basis,” McConnell said. “We’re waiting for signals from the president as to whether or not that’s a discussion he’s willing to have. If he is, it’s a discussion we’re willing to engage in.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters earlier this month that he expects Obama to set a different tone heading into the new Congress in light of this month’s Arizona shooting rampage. Some have blamed the violence at least in part on the vitriolic tone that has polarized the nation in recent years.
When the president delivers his State of the Union address, “Clearly I think he will, again, talk about, as he did in Arizona, in a very extraordinarily eloquent way I thought, of bringing us together, having debate which is positive, and looking towards solutions as opposed to looking towards division,” Hoyer said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.