Analysis: Obama has tough task of bridging divide in D.C.
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Now that the easy part is done, on to something really hard -- fixing Washington without a mandate.
As befits this year's long, roller-coaster race for the White House, a divided electorate delivered its verdict for Barack Obama's re-election Tuesday night. Now, the president faces the task of bridging a stubborn partisan divide and dealing with the deadlock over fixing the economy.
It won't be easy.
"Neither one of these presidential candidates have run a campaign that will make dealing with Congress any easier than it has been in the last three years," said University of Texas political scientist Sean Theriault.
Winning an election is not the end, but the beginning. On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney offered disparate agendas on taxes, the economy, health care, job creation and foreign policy, and one of those agendas will face a withering test in the hothouse politics of Washington.
"What's certain is there will be a Republican House and a Democratic Senate," said Mr. Theriault. "What we've seen in the last two years is the Senate passes a bunch of bills, and the House doesn't take them up. The House passes a bunch of bills, and the Senate doesn't take them up."
On the stump, Mr. Romney promised a busy first day that now will not happen. He said he would take steps to repeal the Obama health care law, clearing the way for the Keystone pipeline and submitting a jobs package to Congress.
A Republican effort to re-litigate health care -- which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised to fight -- would roil the political waters in Congress. Should a direct attempt to repeal Obamacare fail in the Senate, some in the GOP say they will try to block individual regulations and funding needed to fully implement the law.
"The actions he [intended] to take on Day One of his administration are not, in any way, the olive branch that Democrats would expect from anybody who wants to sit down and negotiate," said Mr. Theriault, an expert in party polarization in Congress.
Mr. Obama said his goals for the first year of his second term start with negotiations to avoid the "fiscal cliff" -- the spending cuts and tax hikes that kick in automatically in January unless Congress acts. After that, Mr. Obama told the Des Moines Register, he wants more spending on infrastructure and passage of an issue that he promised four years ago, immigration reform.
"Obama has been running on the fact that if he wins re-election, it will force Republicans to deal with him," said Mr. Theriault. "What's clear is he's not going to have nearly the mandate he had in 2008, not nearly the margins. So there's nothing that suggests Republicans would be any more hospitable to his agenda than they've been in the last few years."
A real mandate requires not only that a candidate wins by a wide margin, but that there's a sense that voters have called for change in a specific direction.
That's what happened in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson seized on his landslide victory to enact the Great Society programs, including civil rights and Medicare. The Reagan Revolution of 1980 ushered in a similar mandate for change.
But when George W. Bush seized the mandate narrative after re-election in 2004 to press for private accounts for Social Security, he failed. Voters had given Mr. Bush a second term around the issue of fighting terrorism, not privatizing Society Security.
Mr. Obama went to Washington in 2009 promising an era of bipartisanship, which didn't happen. In the closing weeks of this campaign, Mr. Romney promised moderate swing voters that he would reach across the aisle to get things done -- something considered anathema to some in the conservative GOP base.
"Nowadays, that's almost a penalty for you if you do that in either house of Congress," said presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
Mr. Romney's political team sought to make the race a referendum on Mr. Obama's handling of the economy. Obama strategists wanted to make the election a choice.
First Published November 7, 2012 2:08 am