With an Obama second term looking like a better than even probability, short of sweeping both chambers of Congress, can the newly reelected president break the stalemate in Washington and govern successfully? He says the partisan fever will break once he cannot run again. He may be right, but President Obama will have to move quickly after the election to send the right signals of strength and resolve, and position himself to take advantage of the recriminations among Republicans that inevitably will surface in the wake of a Romney defeat.
If the GOP loses House seats and falls short of the four seats necessary to control the Senate, there’s an opening for Obama to woo disgruntled Republicans while keeping newly energized Democrats together. Like Clinton-era triangulation, the strategy is divide-and-conquer—except this time it’s applied to Republicans.
Does Obama have the chops to work more effectively with Congress? “There’s no better learning experience than the first term,” says former Senate leader Tom Daschle, an Obama confidant. The inexperienced president learned the hard way he can’t trust the other side, and with time has gotten bolder and better at wielding power. Republicans are still reeling from his changing the policy on deporting illegal immigrants without congressional approval.
But Obama doesn’t have many friends on Capitol Hill in either party. He has allies for sure but hasn’t worked to develop personal relationships. Some think this is a fatal flaw; others say schmoozing is overrated, that the Republicans were going to block Obama’s initiatives regardless of how many White House invites they got.
“Reagan didn’t always enjoy meeting with 535 members; it was a means to an end,” says Ken Duberstein, who worked in the Reagan White House, first in congressional relations, then as chief of staff. “You have to have the relationships—you have to know each other. Every White House screws up and you have to have a reservoir of good will.”
One adviser who did not want to be quoted recalls gently suggesting Obama might want to invest more personal time in courting members of Congress. “He looked at me like I was telling him to do 10 root canals.”
Tom Mann and Norman Ornstein, coauthors of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, an indictment of Republican obstructionism, say it is “utter nonsense” to think more schmoozing is the answer. “For Obama to have a successful second term, he needs a different Republican Party,” says Mann. “He has to hope the election is decisive enough to rattle the party and make [the GOP] realize that a continued strategy of obstruction will not be good for them over the long haul.”
If Governor Romney loses the election, conservatives will say he wasn’t conservative enough, but more pragmatic voices are likely to emerge if there’s a Democratic victory, giving Obama what Ornstein calls “running room” with a number of Republican senators “deeply disillusioned by voting ‘no’ on things they believe in.” Senate leader Mitch McConnell “isn’t a nut case,” says Ornstein. “He’s a ruthless pragmatist.”
If Obama wins the Hispanic vote by 70 to 30 percent, which is possible, Republicans may suddenly see the light on working with the White House on immigration reform. The GOP will need to improve its standing with Hispanic voters to have any hope of winning a national election in the future.
Obama could do more to build relationships outside his comfort zone, but those who know him best don’t expect a major shift in how he operates. “It’s a lot to ask of anybody to get a personality transplant,” says Daschle. “It’s not going to happen.” But Republicans who are serious about negotiating will find a willing and eager partner, he says. “McConnell can’t make his infamous statement again (about making Obama a one-term president), so there is opportunity here to start anew.”
For a president who prefers to operate within a tight circle of familiar faces whether he’s making policy or playing golf, a second term represents wholesale change. Virtually all the Cabinet and a good portion of the White House staff will be gone. There will be no David Plouffe and no David Axelrod gearing up for the next campaign. Pete Rouse, Daschle’s former chief of staff and a savvy insider who has been with Obama for eight years, may finally head for the exit. Rouse is overseeing super-secret transition planning, which will guide the president immediately after the election when Obama confronts the fiscal cliff.
Obama’s comfort zone will shrink at a time when he faces enormous challenges. Personnel decisions will telegraph his policy priorities, and Obama, slow to trust and reluctant to welcome outsiders, will have key jobs to fill. One name floated for Treasury is Erskine Bowles, former Clinton chief of staff and co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission. “If he wanted to send a message to the business community and the markets, Erskine Bowles fulfills that bill as secretary of Treasury,” says Duberstein. Appointing such a high-profile deficit hawk would likely produce howls from the Democratic left. White House chief of staff Jack Lew, another contender for Treasury, would be a smoother transition, and Obama could replace him from within, which is how he prefers to do business.
Anticipating the mood in Washington after the election, Duberstein says, “We’ve gone through this horribly long and negative campaign, and now he has to pick up the pieces—taxes, tax reform and the deficit—and he has to move the Democratic Party. Any deal has to include entitlement reform but that will set a whole bunch of people’s hair on fire.” Any deal will also have to include taxes, and Obama, as a lame duck, will have a lot of freedom to deal and fires to put out.