Charles Dharapak /AP
In this January photo, President Obama shakes hands with now House Speaker-elect John Boehner of Ohio, as Majority Leader-elect Eric Cantor of Virginia looks on. Can Obama, who sees himself as a transformational figure, find common ground with GOP leaders?
In this January photo, President Obama shakes hands with now House Speaker-elect John Boehner of Ohio, as Majority Leader-elect Eric Cantor of Virginia looks on. Can Obama, who sees himself as a transformational figure, find common ground with GOP leaders? Charles Dharapak /AP
It's gut-check time for President Obama.
In the two-plus weeks since his party's disastrous showing in the midterm elections, Obama has been caricatured on the cover of a conservative magazine branding himself with a "loser" hand gesture. He has been urged by two old-time Democratic pollsters — frequent antagonists — to "unite" the country by declaring himself a one-termer. His trip to Asia ended in a failed attempt to seal a trade deal with South Korea.
And Republican leaders this week were seen as snubbing a White House invitation to a bipartisan chat and said they'll try to block a lame-duck Senate vote on an arms treaty with Russia — the president's top foreign policy goal.
It's a complicated new world for the still-ambitious midterm president, who faces a decision on how to reset his agenda in the face of an economy that continues to struggle and an incoming Congress that is not only newly divided, but decidedly more hostile to the big ideas the commander in chief prefers.
"Obama and his advisers must make a strategic decision, partly based on their understanding of how the Republicans will respond, and partly based on what the public expects," says Joseph Pika, co-author of The Politics of the Presidency and a historian at the University of Delaware.
The White House should understand both: Republican leaders have vowed publicly to deny the president any wins going into the 2012 presidential campaign, a recipe for Capitol Hill gridlock.
And the public made clear on Nov. 2 that it wants an agenda that focuses on jobs and the economy.
In that there is peril, and promise.
Transformation Or Triangulation?
Obama is not without strategic advice on the way forward, including from liberals pushing him to grab hold of his executive authority and run with it, and others urging him to steer a moderate, don't-rock-the-boat course.
But Obama is a complicated man, a politician who has to accommodate his self-view as a transformational leader with the new rules of the political road ahead, says presidential historian Stanley Renshon.
"On one hand, he has to make a straightforward, strategic political analysis that says you have to find common ground going forward — as limited or as robust as that may be," says Renshon, a City University of New York political science professor and psychoanalyst. "But on the other side of the ledger is the psychology of a man who subscribes to the 'great man' theory of leadership. His icon is Lincoln, and he also aspires to be the moral center of American policy."
Transformational leaders, Renshon says, "don't do school uniforms."
That reference harks back to an element of President Clinton's agenda after the Democrats' 1994 midterm drubbing. Clinton, at the time, pursued the politics of "triangulation," picking issues on which he could draw some support from his political opponents for initiatives that may have angered his party base but helped him win re-election.
The Clinton Model
Former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, who now heads the liberal Center for American Progress, says he sees real possibilities in the ways of his former boss.
One of the best ways for the president to achieve results, Podesta says, is though robust exercise of executive authority.
Clinton used his to protect wide swaths of federal land, provide for medical privacy, connect schools to the Internet, and wage a national campaign against teen pregnancy — "all, I would say, without the help of Congress," Podesta said.
In the current economic crisis, Democratic strategists like Podesta are urging the president to create a narrative of reining in spending by working with agency chiefs to identify savings. And to take an active role in writing regulations that would implement the health care overhaul legislation.
Pika, the author and historian, however, warns that there is a downside to pursuing what he characterizes as an "administrative" strategy to achieve the president's goals.
"Will the public view this as being cooperative or confrontational?" Pika asks. "It looks an awful lot like the latter to me, and the president has recently been interpreting the public's preference as for more of the former — more efforts at cooperation."
Cooperation could be possible, some strategists say, on issues such as Afghanistan, where Obama has found GOP support before, and perhaps on energy policy, where he has the potential to find common ground with Republicans, much as Clinton post-midterms forged agreement with Republicans on overhauling welfare policy. The influence of new Tea Party-fueled GOP members of Congress and their small-government mandate, however, may complicate compromise for both Obama and Republicans.
"I think he needs to look at Bill Clinton," says Paul Kengor, a political science professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.
"I know there are some liberals and progressives who think he should move to the left, but that's the wrong message," Kengor says. "Clinton came out after the great Republican landslide in 1994 and said, 'Look, I get the message.' "
Federal spending and the explosion of the deficit moved moderates and independents to the GOP in the midterms, Kengor says, and Obama's test will be winning them back. That's a tall order when the good jobs news of the week was that companies are "slowing firings," and The Economist magazine characterizes the task ahead for Obama and Congress as "confronting the monster" of the nation's deficit.
The days of Obama riding the euphoria of the 2008 election are already a distant memory.
"The connection that he had with voters was always an odd one — not based on any common ground, but on hope for the future," says Renshon, whose new book, Barack Obama and the Politics of Redemption, will be published in the spring.
"But he and the public in general," Renshon says, "had different ideas of what the future would bring."
He envisions the president as now choosing the road of "strategic triangulation: doing as much and as little as he can get away with to move his agenda forward."
Obama's Advantages (Yes, There Are Some)
For all the hand-wringing about Obama's way forward, the president can claim some advantages.
His approval rating, while nothing to cheer, has remained steady in the low to mid-40s through the fall and has been consistently much higher than those enjoyed by Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
A post-election daily tracking poll by Gallup showed that his approval rating actually bumped up a few points — to 47 percent — after voters went to the polls.
Clinton's approval ratings after the GOP's big 1994 wins were also in the mid-40s; President Ronald Reagan's approval ratings after the 1982 midterms were in the low 40s. Both went on to win re-election.
"I've always thought Obama would be a two-term president," Kengor says. "And here, at the end of 2010, at the end of this incredible midterm, he's still over 40 percent."
Republicans bent on gridlock may also hand some advantages to Obama, strategists say. They have the potential to overreach in their opposition to Obama on Capitol Hill, a possibility already suggested by the blowback to GOP Sen. Jon Kyl's bid to block the president's arms treaty this week.
"It's going to be hard for Obama to find real common ground, and I think you're going to have a standoff," Renshon says. "Ironically, that may be to his benefit."
The best news for Obama? There is no clear presidential nominee emerging from the ranks of Republican hopefuls, including "front-runners" Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. None polled over 19 percent in this week's Gallup survey of support for potential GOP candidates.
Even Republican strategist Karl Rove, in a Wall Street Journal column this week, warned Republicans not to get cocky about retaking the White House in 2012, given the party's lack of a clear nominee and the historic difficulty in ousting a sitting president.
History suggests that a midterm shellacking does not a re-election bid doom.