On domestic issues, President Obama rarely leads and doesn't like to negotiate. In his first two years in office, he didn't have to do either. He was spoiled by having overwhelming Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. And he hasn't gotten over it yet.
The Republican landslide in the midterm elections doesn't appear to have caused him to grow up, politically speaking. Mitch McConnell, the soon-to-be Senate majority leader, has presented Obama with an open invitation to work out bipartisan compromises with Republicans. Obama's response has been minimal. He invited McConnell to a private meeting at the White House, then last week alerted the senator he was about to "normalize" relations with Cuba.
Faced with a budget compromise reached by House speaker John Boehner and outgoing Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Obama was obligated to go along. But he didn't like it. "This is what's produced when we have the divided government that the American people voted for," he said despairingly. "There are a bunch of provisions. … that I really do not like."
In theory at least, the president accepts the new circumstances in Washington. "What the American people very much are looking for is some practical governance and the willingness to compromise," he said. But he noted ruefully that if the budget bill had "passed without any Republican votes I suspect it would be slightly different." It's that difference, Mr. President, that folks voted against.
Obama uses the term "divided government" as if it's the bane of his presidency, which it is. McConnell has a far more enlightened and practical view. Divided government is one of his hobby horses. He talks about it frequently. "It doesn't mean you can't accomplish anything," he said the day after the midterms.
"I always like to remind people that divided government is not unusual in this country," he said. "We've had it frequently. I think maybe even more often than not since World War II. When the American people choose divided government …I think it means they want us to look for areas of agreement."
McConnell offered a bit of history. "Reagan never had the House in eight years," he said. "Clinton didn't have the House or the Senate for six of his eight years. I can think of at least four fairly significant things [that got] done." He listed the rescue of Social Security and tax reform under Reagan and welfare reform and three balanced budgets under Clinton.
Obama is no Clinton. He has casually endorsed bipartisan compromises, then found a way to wiggle out. He says he favors reform of entitlements but can't follow through because Democrats in Congress oppose it. In January, he was for "fast track" authority to facilitate passage of trade treaties. But Reid refused to pass it. (Does anyone doubt this was pre-arranged?) In 2011, he was on the verge of locking up a compromise on deficit reduction with $4 trillion in tax hikes and spending cuts. At the last minute, he sought $400 billion more in taxes. This "moved the goalposts," Boehner said. He backed out of the negotiations.
The collapse of the deficit talks reflects Obama's view of negotiations, says Republican congressman Peter Roskam of Illinois, who served with Obama in the Illinois legislature. If Republicans agree to a deal, Obama figures he hasn't pushed hard enough and asks for further concessions.
Republicans will make it hard for Obama to sidestep all negotiation and compromise in 2015. The public wants the kind of bipartisanship Obama promised in his 2008 campaign. "They don't want Obama playing politics [and] trying to push Republicans into fights," says GOP pollster Ed Goeas. He and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake released their George Washington University Battleground Poll.
It's not just McConnell and Boehner who want to deal with the White House and congressional Democrats. The 41 House freshmen in the Republican class of 2014 are considerably less ideological than the 2010 class. Many ran on seeking to cosponsor bills with Democrats. As a group, they are more moderate.
McConnell is ready for talks on four issues Obama has said he'd like to take up: trade agreements and fast track, infrastructure, tax reform, and entitlements. Reaching a compromise on any of these would be difficult. The increasingly energetic left wing of the Democratic party and organized labor oppose free trade pacts, period. Obama wants to take $1 trillion from tax reform and spend it on infrastructurea nonstarter. And rather than reform entitlements, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and her left-wing allies want to increase benefits.
Another problem is Obama's failure to understand the value of the stamp of bipartisanship on major initiatives or policies. Had Republicans been offered inducements to vote for Obamacare and Dodd-Frank's expanded regulation of Wall Street, those measures would be far less controversial and threatened with repeal or sharp revision than they are today. They might even look permanent.
Obama "has not absorbed any of that lesson," says Roskam. Instead, he invited Republicans to dinners, White House meetings, and rounds of golf in 2013. In the case of Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, he alienated a senior Republican eager to compromise on entitlement reform and the budget. Lauren Fox of U.S. News & World Report quoted Corker as telling a group of reporters that Obama's overtures were not "ever in earnest, it was optics."
Since the November 4 elections, Obama hasn't recovered politically. His efforts, pollster Goeas says, "to downplay these electoral results through legislative maneuvering, executive orders, and trying to blame Republicans have all failed. He is in as poor a place politically today as he was on the day after the midterm elections."
The first test of Obama's willingness to seek bipartisan solutions came after Republicans won the 2010 midterms. He was unwilling. Now, with Republicans about to take full control of Congress, he has another opportunity to bargain seriously and honestly with Republicans.
Chances are, he won't.