It will be tempting for the White House to feign a course correction and bipartisanship, but not really change course.
The president, for instance, might refuse to see the elections as a referendum on his leadership, justifying that outlook by exit polls that showed equal dissatisfaction with both parties. And, after all, these were races for congressional, state, and local offices, not for the Oval Office.
Mr. Obama might also see the country as more disappointed by the economy, than by his stewardship, though he said today he took responsibility for failure to grow jobs more quickly. He might also view the House turnover to the GOP as a distorted public statement – the result of a Republican base that was simply more fired up than his own party.
There’s an element of truth in all of these conclusions. But if the president focuses on them, he’ll miss the larger truth that this “shellacking,” as he put it, was also a referendum on Obama Part I.
A majority of voters, 54 percent, disapproved of the job he’s doing, and a similar percent said his policies will harm the country, according to exit polls. And voters who sided with Obama two years ago – independents and women – sidestepped to the GOP this time.
With Republican John Boehner as the presumptive House speaker and with substantial GOP gains in the Senate, Obama will have to take a lesson from Bill Clinton, who moved to the middle after the Democrats lost both houses in the midterms of 1994.
President Clinton was often ridiculed for his small steps in governing – remember his push for school uniforms? But divided government has a way of forcing a president to reduce his stride.
Obama campaigned as a big-ideas, transformational president. Now he’ll have to take another approach. He acknowledged today that there’s more than one way of “skinning the cat” on climate-change legislation. He’ll need to focus more on energy and less on climate; rely more on the states and private industry, and less on the federal government.
He’s also unlikely to make headway with sweeping immigration reform, another campaign promise. But two more years to prove his credentials as an enforcer of immigration law could make reform easier in the long run.
Big ideas are still possible under divided government; they just require compromise. Clinton and Republicans worked together for welfare reform and a balanced budget agreement. George W. Bush worked with Democrats on the landmark No Child Left Behind Act.
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