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Big Post-Midterm Choices for Obama -- and Republicans

Big Post-Midterm Choices for Obama -- and Republicans

By Charles Lipson - November 6, 2014

November 2014 was a rejection election. What was rejected were not all incumbents but President Obama's policies and the politicians closely associated with them.  Vulnerable Republican incumbents won in Kentucky and Kansas; vulnerable Democrats lost in North Carolina and Colorado.  States like Virginia and New Hampshire, with strong, well-liked Democratic senators, had extremely close races.  The Republicans won governorships across the country, including in the bluest of states.  Now that the ballots are counted, the stage is set for the next major engagement between Republicans and Democrats.  Both parties face big choices.  The ones they make will set the contours for American politics during the final two years of Obama’s presidency.

Obama faces one overriding decision that he has to make almost immediately.  Does he want to work with the new Republican majority or will he refuse, either because he wants stick to his ideological principles or because he simply cannot bring himself to work closely with his former adversaries?

The president faces that hard -- and crucial -- question as soon as Congress returns to Washington.  He has to decide what he wants to propose for the lame-duck session and what he wants to mandate by executive order. The biggest issue, obviously, is immigration.  Will the president unilaterally extend work visas and waive deportation, at least temporarily, for millions living in the U.S. illegally?  Opening that giant door without explicit congressional approval will light a firestorm.  Opponents will argue that Obama could have proposed these policies before the election but refused because he knew the public would reject them.  Others will question the president’s legal authority.  On the world stage, will he strike a major deal with Iran and then refuse to seek congressional authorization?  If he does, expect another firestorm, along with continuing criticism of the administration’s policies in Iraq and Syria.

From Obama’s perspective, a deal with Iran and a partial solution to the immigration crisis would be major achievements, vital parts of his legacy.  But they carry significant political risks.  If he moves very aggressively in the months before the new Congress is seated, he may accomplish some major goals but he will also poison the well for cooperation after the new Congress is seated in January.  He will, of course, blame the Republicans for any breakdown of cooperation, but that still won’t yield him many positive outcomes in his final two years.

Meanwhile, Republicans face an equally consequential choice of their own, now that they control both the House and the Senate.  For the past two years, they could only pass bills in the House and send them to the Senate to die.  Controlling only one chamber, they could not set an effective legislative agenda.  So, the Republicans chose to be a party of opposition.  They took that oppositional stance to the electorate this year, declined to propose any national agenda, and won convincingly.  Now what?  Do they want to remain the party of “no”?  Or do they want to stake out an affirmative agenda, which will require painful internal compromises and which the president may not accept? There are bound to be deep divisions within the GOP over the best course, pitting the Establishment "governing wing" against the Tea Party "strong principles wing."

My hunch is that most elected Republicans will want to avoid any repetition of the woeful results of the government shutdown, which the Democrats successfully pinned on the Tea Party.  The party’s favorability plummeted, threatening electoral prospects.  With that cautionary lesson in mind, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner should be able to craft and pass a governing agenda, dragging along reluctant Republicans and forcing Democrats to take awkward votes.  The goal is to put bill after bill on the president's desk.  They will start with low-hanging fruit like approving the Keystone pipeline and repealing the medical-device tax, rather than staging a frontal assault on Obamacare.

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the president himself won't have much leverage to keep their folks in line.  Nor can Obama draw on any strong personal ties with the Senate or House.  He simply doesn’t have any. Senators running for re-election in 2016 will run in terror from the president, whose personal popularity is now around 40 percent and whose policies are even more unpopular.  Democratic senators could filibuster, but that carries the risk of being seen as obstructionist.  So the president, standing alone, will have to decide whether to "go along to get along" or to resist the new governing majority on the Hill.

The choices are fundamental.  They will determine our national politics for the next two years.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

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