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Will Obama’s lame-duck dealmaking survive in the new year?

Even with the deep partisan divide, Obama and Congress worked together in the lame-duck session. But pressure on the president from the left and right will grow in the new year.

By Staff writer / December 31, 2010

President Obama spoke with a South Korean official from the White House Treaty Room Office Nov. 23. The president faces challenges at home. But analysts say predictions of gridlock in Congress may be premature.

Pete Souza/White House

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Washington

President Obama and Congress proved during the lame-duck session that they can work together to resolve big and thorny issues, but that remarkable show of bipartisanship in all likelihood will be short-lived.

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The Democrats don’t own the House anymore, and their Senate majority is smaller. In securing the $858 billion tax-cut and unemployment-benefit package, Mr. Obama cashed in his one big bargaining chip with the Republicans: allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to continue even for the wealthiest taxpayers. He also infuriated his liberal base.

“He doesn’t have much to bargain with come January,” says historian Julian Zelizer, at Princeton University.

Caught between an empowered right and a balky left, Obama appears to be in a bit of a box. But predictions of total gridlock in the 112th Congress may be premature. In fact, analysts say, Obama and the Republicans both need to accomplish two things: show they can govern while also drawing lines in the sand. So over time, expect a combination of collaboration and conflict. Obama can also avoid Congress altogether, changing policy by executive order and using the bully pulpit to try to shape public opinion.

The early going may be particularly telling. The conservative tea party movement, which fueled the tsunami that wiped out many Democrats in the midterms, will be watching the new GOP members closely – as well as established Republicans who may be deemed insufficiently conservative and therefore deserving of a primary challenge in 2012. That bodes ill for compromise. At the same time, the new House speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio, will need to assert his own authority over his much-expanded caucus, including the tea party faction.

So even as both parties are laying down ideological markers, Obama and the Republican leadership will be looking for areas of common ground, such as on education and trade. The just-concluded trade agreement with South Korea could be an early test case – both between the parties, and within each party. The populist left and some tea partyers are not big fans of international trade agreements, which they say export jobs, and they could face internal conflicts as the two parties collaborate.

Students of divided government argue that recent history will be instructive to both Obama and Mr. Boehner. The deep partisan divide of 1995 – the year following the last GOP takeover of Congress – led to a legislative impasse on funding and two government shutdowns, with Republicans taking a big hit in public opinion. President Bill Clinton emerged the victor. Thus was born a willingness to compromise, which led to welfare reform and budget deals.

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