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How President Obama can win over Congress (+ video)

He may have won the election, but now President Obama faces enormous challenges in the House and Senate – among Republicans and Democrats. To succeed, he must do what does not come naturally to him: Spend lots of quality time with lawmakers of both parties.

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Disappointed about their 2012 setbacks, Senate Republicans will be counting the days until the 2014 midterm, which will give them another chance to gain a majority. Of the 33 seats up that year, Democrats currently hold 20, so they have much more to lose. Moreover, seven of these Democrats come from Romney states, whereas only one of the 13 Republicans (Susan Collins of Maine) represents a state that President Obama just won. Senate Republicans will feel relatively little election-year pressure to side with the White House.

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So what can the president do? One important part of his legislative strategy should be to look for issues of common ground. Speaker Boehner has already signaled that House Republicans are willing to deal on tax reform. In theory, this issue should appeal across partisan and ideological boundaries. Liberals and Democrats like the idea of closing loopholes that benefit the rich. Conservatives and Republicans want to lower marginal rates. And people across the spectrum would be glad if a simplified system cut paperwork and saved billions in compliance costs.

The key words here are “in theory.” In practice, every tax preference has a constituency and every scrap of tax paperwork has a rationale. During the mid-1980s, President Reagan overcame these obstacles and persuaded Congress to pass an important tax-reform bill. It might be hard to replicate that success in 2013. Congress is more polarized, and the opponents of tax reform are savvier – in part because they learned from their defeat at Reagan’s hands.

Even if President Obama comes up with a smart legislative strategy, he will still have to change his operating style. During his first term, the cerebral chief executive often stayed aloof from the personal politicking that had enabled other presidents to get their way on Capitol Hill. As one Democratic lawmaker told Politico earlier this year, “I’ve been on Air Force One twice – with George W. Bush.” 

To succeed, the president must do what does not come naturally to him: Spend lots of quality time with lawmakers of both parties, paying attention to their personal interests and policy ideas.

Congratulations, Mr. President, you’ve made it through a hard year. Unfortunately, you have another one coming up.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."


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