- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Facing Republicans in a closed-door meeting 19 months ago, newly minted President Obama tried to end a philosophical debate over the size and scope of the stimulus with this simple admonition: “I won.”

After Tuesday’s election, all eyes will be on Mr. Obama to see how he handles having lost - big - with much of his first-term to-do list unchecked and his own re-election campaign looming in two years.

“He may not get very much more of his agenda … but in a way, he’s made his mark, and all he has to do is protect it,” said James W. Ceaser, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. “His next duty is to protect the change and hope that things turn around and that he can then say in 2012, ‘Well see, I told you all along, and the 2010 election was an aberration brought by the fact that we didn’t have enough patience.’ “

The country will get some idea of Mr. Obama’s direction at an early-afternoon news conference Wednesday. But the president already has provided a few hints, saying in a recent interview that Democrats will have “to have a proper and appropriate sense of humility about what we can accomplish in the absence of Republican cooperation.”

Indeed, Mr. Obama told National Journal last week that Congress likely will not pass a broad energy bill that tackles climate change and he instead expects lawmakers to look for “bite-sized pieces.” The president said he can see some areas, including infrastructure spending and education, where he thinks Republicans will cooperate with him.

Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of NDN, a Democratic advocacy group, predicted that Mr. Obama will be savvy about the fights he picks - and will approach those battles from a position of strength.

“I think the president is going to be much more aggressive about defining” Republicans, Mr. Rosenberg said. “I think the president is going to be much more willing to go after the Republicans in a very Reaganesque manner to call them out when they’re not working in the national interest.”

Mr. Obama seemed ready to take such a harsh tone against Republicans in a radio interview last month, when he told Univision that Hispanic voters should punish their “enemies” - Republicans - for failing to pass an immigration bill. But this week, he told talk-radio host Michael Baisden that he probably should have used the word “opponents” instead.

In addition, Mr. Obama will have to deal with a Republican caucus on Capitol Hill that likely will see the 2010 results as an “I won” moment of their own - a mandate to move against Mr. Obama and roll back the health care and stimulus bills and push dramatic spending cuts.

Last weekend, while giving the Republican radio address, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio said, “Americans haven’t experienced the change President Obama promised.” He said that “starts with cutting spending instead of increasing it, making government smaller and more accountable.”

Mr. Rosenberg said the real lessons will have to be learned by Republicans, who are likely to have a bigger voice in government and will be under pressure to find issues on which they can work with Mr. Obama.

“Gridlock is not an option in American politics and, in fact, the last two years saw one of the most productive congresses in history,” he said. “To go from this incredibly productive Congress that did so many things to one that doesn’t do anything - the public will say well, what happened?”

But some argue that “gridlock” isn’t such a dirty word in the current political environment. Republican strategist Michael McKenna said that’s actually what voters want.

“Not only do they want divided government as a theoretical matter, with respect to this specific set of facts, they are sending Republicans there to ensure gridlock,” Mr. McKenna said. “They’re sending the barbarians here to sack the city. They’re not sending them here to build art museums.”

Mr. Obama already achieved some of the biggest priorities when he signed his health care overhaul and pushed Congress to pass a rewrite of the country’s financial regulations. The final version of the health care bill passed without a single Republican vote in either chamber, while the financial regulatory bill garnered just three Republican votes in the House and four in the Senate.

Earlier in his tenure, Mr. Obama got Congress to pass the $814 billion stimulus, relying on the support of three Republican senators - including Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who switched to the Democratic Party in April 2009 - to help overcome a Republican-led filibuster.

Mr. Specter’s switch gave Democrats 60 members in the Senate, marking a filibuster-proof supermajority that lasted until Sen. Scott Brown’s surprise special-election victory in Massachusetts in January.

Now, with Mr. Obama’s numbers diminished further, outsiders are offering advice for how he should deal with the changing congressional landscape.

Tina Brown, founder and editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast, wrote this week that the president needs to start going to church publicly, to glad-hand more with potential supporters and to play up his cultural initiatives such as his support for the arts.

In a Huffington Post article last week, Michael Lux, author of “The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be,” said Mr. Obama’s first two years were marred by “insider-y” legislative deals. He said the president needs to stop dealing and instead spend more time engaging activists on his left flank, including adding some to his inner circle.

Congressional Republicans have urged Mr. Obama to start working with them during the lame-duck session, saying it’s a good way for him to get in some bipartisan practice before new members are seated in January.

Mr. McKenna said he can’t see Mr. Obama following in President Clinton’s footsteps because Mr. Clinton loved being president so much that he was willing to compromise his principles, “but President Obama’s there to do things he wants - to achieve policy objectives. So he’s going to push really hard on the regulatory side.

“I think he’s truthful when he says he would rather be a hard-charging one-termer than sort of a do-nothing, stand-around two-termer,” Mr. McKenna said.

Unlike Mr. Clinton, who won his first term with 43 percent of the vote in a three-way race, Mr. Obama won with a clear majority of 53 percent in 2008.

Mr. McKenna said that means this president can continue governing from the left.

“He’s already running for 2012. He’s running a ‘rally the base’ effort for 2012,” he said, predicting that “what you’re seeing in the last two weeks of this campaign is going to be a preview of what the next two years are going to look like - it’s going to be pretty rough-and-tumble.”

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