For President Barack Obama, now comes the hard part.
Having surmounted a sluggish economic recovery and won a bitter re-election campaign, Obama must again work with the same divided Congress that fought him to a legislative standstill the past two years.
And he faces that looming “fiscal cliff,” which will require the two warring parties to reach some sort of detente by year’s end, lest the still fragile economy be hit with a massive tax increase and an array of defense and domestic budget cuts both parties say they want to avoid.
All that will pose a major challenge to Obama’s leadership skills and his reiterated vow to work more closely with Republicans. But it will also test the GOP’s congressional leadership — House Speaker John Boehner, who can’t always control his rambunctious anti-Obama majority, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a big loser after voters rebuffed his goal of making Obama a one-term president and reduced his team’s numbers.
Initial signs were mixed. McConnell, seemingly seeking to reassure the more rabid conservatives, said voters “gave President Obama a second chance to fix the problems that even he admits he failed to solve” but they did not endorse his “failures or excesses.” He urged Obama to “propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely divided Senate.”
Boehner, after declaring Tuesday night the election provided “no mandate for raising tax rates” as Obama wants on wealthier taxpayers, said Wednesday that House Republicans are “willing to accept some additional revenues” as part of tax reform that eliminates existing loopholes but that “the president must be willing to reduce spending and shore up entitlement programs.”
But Obama holds some leverage when the “lame duck” congressional session begins next week. Though Boehner warned against doing “big things” now, lawmakers face the Dec. 31 expiration of tax cuts enacted under former President George W. Bush and a desire to block the spending cuts stemming from their failure to enact meaningful deficit reduction last year.
Without action, the tax cuts will expire, including those for upper income taxpayers that formed the heart of the battle between Obama and Republicans insistent they be continued. Some Democrats favor letting all tax cuts expire, believing that, when Congress passes replacement reductions next year, Obama could block those for the wealthiest taxpayers.
Similarly, on spending cuts, Republicans are more concerned with blocking the defense cuts that represent the Democrats’ view that the Pentagon should share the burden of reducing the size and cost of government.
Sen.-elect Tim Kaine, D-Va., proposed a possible compromise Wednesday on MSNBC, ending the tax cuts for those earning over $500,000, rather than the $250,000 Obama proposed, and reducing the spending cuts in a way that allows the Pentagon to target specific programs. Republicans prefer deferring the entire fight to next year and keeping the tax cuts until Congress can consider major tax reform, but Obama’s re-election and the year-end deadlines may make that harder.
For his part, Obama, in an acceptance speech invoking the unity themes of his 2004 convention speech, said he looks forward “to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together,” citing reducing the deficit, reforming the tax code, fixing the immigration system and “freeing ourselves from foreign oil.”
But he needs to follow up his post-election pleasantries by reaching out to GOP leaders in the more substantive way that he failed to do four years ago, thus putting pressure on Republicans to abandon obstructionist tactics that failed both substantively and politically.
Any compromise move by Boehner could be hamstrung, as in 2011, by anti-tax House Republican hard-liners. And McConnell could face a conservative challenger in 2014 if he facilitates an accommodation with Obama including higher taxes.
Obama, meanwhile, has solidified his historical stature as the nation’s first African-American president by becoming the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win 50 percent in two presidential elections. Now he can enhance it substantively by crafting a long-term deficit fix to join his health care law as historic policy achievements.
But it won’t be easy.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.