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An Obama-Republican Governing Alliance? Unlikely.

An Obama-Republican Governing Alliance? Unlikely.

By Alexis Simendinger - November 5, 2014

For President Obama and his party, Tuesday night's midterm results were nothing short of brutal.

Voters' deep misgivings about Washington and Obama's leadership put Republicans in charge of both chambers of Congress next year by margins that upend politics and governing just as the 2016 presidential race gets underway.

Obama proved to be correct when he predicted the midterm map would be tough for Democratic candidates this year, but his public warnings that Republicans have “bad ideas,” and that divided government leads to endless stalemate, fell on millions of deaf ears.

For a politician who once filled stadiums with roaring crowds and championed his vision of “one America,” the prospect of spending his final two years in office negotiating every legislative millimeter across the table from House Speaker John Boehner and new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a rebuke by any measure.

Boehner likes to say Obama isn’t to be trusted, and McConnell’s outspoken ambition was to limit the president to one term. To expect a companionable alliance to blossom out of GOP victories and Democratic defeats is a stretch.

After six tumultuous years of experimenting with collaboration, confrontation and crafting end-runs around Congress, sometimes in the same week, what lessons will Obama draw?

Aides say the president believes the economy is healthier; that the Republican Party remains just as unpopular as it was before the elections; and that policies Democrats espouse -- and that conservatives oppose -- are supported by majorities of Americans. Voters may have taken their angst out on Obama, but he is not shouldering blame.

During a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Obama is expected to tell Republicans that while he wants partners across the aisle in Congress, he’s also poised to use his executive muscle if necessary. For example, he has vowed to expand legal work opportunities for millions of undocumented immigrants by the end of the year, basing his decision on Boehner’s assessment that his conference would not vote on such legislation this year.

In the wake of the 2010 takeover of the House by Republicans, Obama juggled new White House chiefs of staff, counselors and legislative affairs directors. He has blamed his difficulties on communications, but never wanted to change his communications strategies or strategists. He has asked outsiders for ideas, leaving them grumbling when they believed the sessions were for show. Colleagues from the Senate have offered advice, or tried to, complaining later that in the Obama White House, information enters and is slow to get shared.

"We have to be more direct and clear about exactly what it is we're looking to do," Vice President Biden told CNN before the Election Day rout. "And look, we're -- we're ready to compromise.”

Obama has asked to meet with House and Senate leaders from both parties Friday afternoon at the White House. He plans to depart Sunday for a week of official business in China, Burma and Australia.

While he’s gone, lawmakers in the current Congress will return to Washington. And the factions and frictions within both parties will be on display while he’s gone.

Some Democrats think Harry Reid could be replaced as leader of the minority in the Senate next year. Across the aisle, McConnell is likely to be elected by GOP colleagues to lead a conference studded with 2016 presidential aspirants. His decisions will be important for Senate Republicans and their new majority, and critical to his party’s message that the GOP can govern.

Evidence that conservatives are looking beyond Obama emerged within hours after the polls closed Tuesday. Photographs of Hillary Clinton, who traveled to 18 states and made 45 appearances for Democrats this year, circulated on social media. “Hillary’s Losers,” the captions read.

By early next year, Clinton -- and some other Democrats -- may be in the race to succeed Obama. To be as nationally recognized a figure as Clinton has become creates something of a hurdle if she chooses to run and wants to be seen as a “change” candidate with fresh, new ideas. Other than differing with the president over arming the Syrian rebels, she has thus far been in his shadow.

If Republicans force Obama to veto bill after bill next year, and if nominees are blocked in the Senate and congressional investigations look partisan, Clinton would revel in attacking conservatives rather than being drawn into fractures with the president.

Obama wants his legacy to be about Obama. But after Tuesday’s Senate race results, he may be ready for Hillary. 

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

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