Obama's new job: reinvention

To avoid gridlock, he will need to master a new political reality – and win a battle of public perception.

By , / Staff writer

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    President Obama acknowledged the ‘shellacking’ dealt to Democrats in a post election news conference in the East Room of the White House Nov. 3.
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    Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell spoke about the GOP’s midterm gains at a Washington think tank Nov. 4.
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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.

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.

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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.

At this point, Obama may seem more like a Carter than a Clinton. It's hard to see him hanging out after hours with a Speaker John Boehner the way President Reagan would invite Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a fellow Irishman, over for drinks every so often, or secretly consulting with a Republican strategist the way Mr. Clinton did with Dick Morris to learn the art of "triangulation."

Some analysts are not convinced that Obama can reinvent himself after his electoral comeuppance.

Limits to reinvention

"I think voters get a pretty strong set of feelings about a president by this time, and there are limits to how much you can reshape how the public sees you," says Julian Zelizer, a Princeton historian and author of a new book on Carter. "Obama's better opportunity is to focus his fire on the Republicans and present them as the party of extremism that can't govern and has no solutions."

So far, the Republicans' two leaders on Capitol Hill seem to be playing good cop, bad cop. The day after the election, Congressman Boehner echoed Obama as he spoke of working with the president on "the American people's priorities: creating jobs and cutting spending." The next day, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky doubled down on his insistence that the GOP's top political priority should be to deny Obama a second term.

"The fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won't veto any of these things," Senator McConnell said Nov. 4 in an address at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

To be sure, the White House itself has put out the message that the next two years will be marked by a combination of cooperation and conflict. Both work to Obama's advantage. The public wants to see the parties working together, but if liberal Democrats see Obama veering too far to the right, he could alienate his base and invite a primary challenge from the left. Already, the name of former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean has been floated as a possible contender (and immediately shot down by aides), as has the name of Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, who lost reelection. A spokesman said Senator Feingold has "no interest" in running.

Challenging Obama would be tricky

Given Obama's unique position in history as the first African-American president, it may be trickier for a fellow Democrat to challenge him the way Sen. Edward Kennedy challenged Carter in 1980, another factor that weakened Carter's reelection bid.

And there are many reasons for Obama to be hopeful about his future. His job approval rating is not too far below 50 percent, and the Republican Party is just as unpopular as the Democrats. A Pew Research Center/National Journal poll released Oct. 25 found majority approval of only two GOP agenda items: allowing more oil and gas drilling off US shores and allowing private accounts in Social Security. Repealing health-care reform came in at 49 percent. Freezing all government spending except for national security won 43 percent support. Conducting major investigations of the Obama administration came in at 42 percent.

The Republicans may overreach, but Obama can't count on that. Instead, he is looking inward. Expect a staff shake-up in the White House. At his Nov. 3 press conference, Obama took responsibility for an economy that has "not made as much progress as we need to make." But he did not apologize for any of the big agenda items – foremost, the economic stimulus and health-care reform – that have caused him so much grief.

Mistakes acknowledged

In a recent New York Times interview, he admitted that he let himself look too much like "the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat." He admitted he learned too late that "there's no such thing as shovel-ready projects." And he suggested that he should have allowed the Republicans to "insist on the tax cuts in the stimulus," instead of proposing them himself.

But those are tactical matters, and he faces a big-picture challenge. Come January, to avoid gridlock, he must govern "less like the liberal antithesis of Ronald Reagan and more like the heir to Bill Clinton, whose agenda he has regarded hitherto as excessively compromised and incremental," writes former Clinton policy adviser William Galston.

"No later than his 2011 State of the Union address," adds Mr. Galston, head of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, "we will find out whether Obama possesses the one trait that every successful statesman needs: the ability to adjust to changing circumstances without selling his soul."

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