Obama's new job: reinvention
To avoid gridlock, he will need to master a new political reality – and win a battle of public perception.
Weeks before the midterm elections, Barack Obama already knew his life as president would change forever. His Democrats were going to "take a shellacking," as he put it after the vote. They would likely lose their House majority – and boy, did they.Skip to next paragraph
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Obama 2.0, in the works for months, is now live, and the outlines are beginning to take shape. After pledging to find "common ground" with the newly empowered Republicans in Congress, the president is holding a White House summit with the leaders of both parties on Nov. 18.
He has signaled a willingness to compromise on extending Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. He has distanced himself from the now-toxic cap-and-trade energy bill and laid out areas for possible consensus action under the rubric of "energy independence." He is looking ahead to the recommendations of the bipartisan deficit commission, due Dec. 1, as a launch point for addressing America's worsening fiscal imbalance.
In short, Mr. Obama is making all the right noises. But over the next two years, can he rise to the occasion and master the new reality or will the Republicans get the better of him, as they seek to unseat him in 2012?
'Is he Carter or Clinton?'
"Barack Obama is clearly a good person," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "The question is whether he can be an effective, efficient president. That jury is still out. It's the question, is he Carter or Clinton?"
Obama's two most recent Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, show two paths. In the Carter version, a smart but self-righteous president never figures out a comfortable modus operandi with Congress – and it was a Democratic Congress back then – and is swept out after one term. Of course, Mr. Carter also presided over crippling events that weren't his fault, beginning with an economically damaging energy crisis and the drawn-out Iranian hostage crisis. But the voters had had enough.
In the Clinton version, a smart and personable but undisciplined president loses his congressional majorities after two years, and after some painful retooling, learns to meet the Republicans partway and wins reelection.