For Obama, Path Forward Is Unclear -- and Bumpy

For Obama, Path Forward Is Unclear -- and Bumpy

By Alexis Simendinger - November 7, 2012

President Obama's Electoral College victory Tuesday may have settled an election, but not a direction.

Weakened by a near-split in the popular vote and a contest marked by its nastiness and small-bore skirmishes, the first African-American to be re-elected to the highest office will be tasked to lead half of a nation that sought his defeat, alongside a Congress philosophically more divided than ever.

In 2008, voters swept a young Illinois senator into the White House on a promise of change and collaboration as the economy was plummeting over a precipice. In the final days of this campaign -- and during his victory speech early Wednesday night -- Obama tried to rekindle his trademark themes. “I am hopeful tonight,” he said. “We remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.”

His campaign slogan was “Forward,” and Obama telegraphed how quickly he expects to get down to work, both with Congress and with a transition to a second term. (There will be changes aplenty as exhausted White House aides and Cabinet officials make for the exits; the president and his chief of staff know where to expect the vacancies.)

“I return to the White House more inspired and more determined about the work we need to do and the future that lies ahead,” Obama told thousands of flag-waving supporters gathered in a Chicago convention hall. “Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual,” he continued in remarks that lasted 20 minutes. “We are not as divided as our politics suggest.”

That rhetorical flourish will be tested almost immediately as the White House and Congress clash over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” which is an end-of-year statutory deadline for across-the-board spending cuts and higher tax rates for everyone. Both parties want to avoid inaction that would let current law go into effect, and Washington is well versed in the component reforms that would avoid cliff diving. But Democrats have vowed they will not cut spending more deeply unless Republicans agree to raise revenues, and the GOP remains resolute that individual tax rates will not go up.

House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement three hours before Obama spoke in Chicago, seeking to herald his party’s retention of House control. “With this vote, the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates,” he noted.

Wasting no time, he scheduled a news conference Wednesday afternoon to discuss what his staff billed as “the need for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs.”

The speaker came close to a secret $4 trillion budget deal with Obama in the summer of 2011 before both sides walked away from collaboration as the ceiling on the nation’s borrowing authority remained for a time in legislative jeopardy. Both parties in 2011 said there were insufficient votes in the House to tackle more than $1 trillion in spending reductions, and that standoff created the sequestration guillotine now hanging over them come Dec. 31, along with the end of tax breaks that have bolstered households through these tough economic times.

A lame duck Congress and a president awaiting his second term will face off once again.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, weighed in early Wednesday with his own statement, seeking to create a united front with the GOP’s sole power center, which remains in the House. “We’ll be there to meet him halfway,” he said of the GOP’s willingness to compromise with Obama.

Republicans hoped this election cycle would put them in control of the Senate, but it was not to be, and no one was more disappointed than McConnell. The Kentucky conservative who faces re-election in 2014 made clear that shared power is how his caucus interprets divided government.

“The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term,” McConnell said in his statement. “They have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together with a Congress that restored balance to Washington after two years of one-party control. Now it’s time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing” in the House, and in “a closely divided Senate.”

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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