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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.

By John J. Pitney Jr. / November 9, 2012

President Obama speaks at his election night party in Chicago in the wee hours of Nov. 7. On the president's immediate agenda: how to avoid the fiscal cliff. Op-ed contributor John J. Pitney Jr. writes: 'Much of the mass media interpreted the election as a defeat for the GOP. The House Republicans see it differently.'

Chris Carlson/AP/file


Claremont, Calif.

Now that President Obama has won his campaign against Mitt Romney, he has to start another on Capitol Hill. On issues ranging from the impending fiscal cliff to implementation of health-care reform, he needs support from Congress, especially GOP House Speaker John Boehner. The president will have to work very hard to get that support, because his victory in the first campaign does not guarantee success in the second. 

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COMMENTARY: Harvard Kennedy School Professor Linda Bilmes discusses the US national debt and deficits.

Each party in each chamber confronts him with a different challenge.

Much of the mass media interpreted the election as a defeat for the GOP. The House Republicans see it differently. At the start of the campaign, Democrats were hoping that Medicare would be their weapon to take down the GOP majority. They tried to tie Republican lawmakers to Paul Ryan’s premium-support proposal, claiming that it would end Medicare as we know it. Republicans countered the assault by accusing their foes of trying to raid Medicare to pay for the president’s health-care law. They fought the issue at least to a draw, and kept control of the House by a comfortable margin.

This outcome may embolden Republicans to keep pressing for change in Medicare and other social welfare programs. As Winston Churchill wrote, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” 

House Democrats may be glad that Mr. Obama won, but they owe him very little. The president’s unpopularity in Republican-leaning states hurt Democratic congressional candidates, especially in the South. The president also failed to give House Democrats as much attention and campaign help as they wanted.

When a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Obama campaign manager Jim Messina why the president wasn’t doing more for congressional candidates, he said: "We really do believe a high tide raises all boats. If we win, history teaches us Democrats will win, as well." But while the president floated, the House Democrats’ boat remained stuck on bottom.

Senate Democrats fared better than their House counterparts, not only holding their majority but scoring a net gain of two seats. Yet the president cannot take much credit for this showing. Their biggest upset triumphs occurred in Montana and North Dakota, which went for Mitt Romney in the presidential race. They also won high-profile races in the Romney states of Missouri and Indiana. These victories were less surprising because the Republican candidates had made spectacular blunders while talking about rape and abortion. The president may have had coattails in a couple of other races, but Democrats would have held their majority without them.


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