Bent but Not Broken

President Obama is open to working with the new Republican Congress—within limits.

U.S. President Barack Obama
President Obama holds a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 5, 2014. How willing will the president be to negotiate with the likes of Mitch McConnell?

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President Obama’s coalition may not have turned out for Democrats on Election Day, but at his press conference Wednesday the president was clear that he still has a coalition behind him. “I am the guy who is elected by everybody,” he said. That was both an explanation of why he was punished by the voters who rejected members of his party and a reminder that he is not without power. The president can still speak to those voters who didn’t participate in the midterm elections but who will return in 2016. “To everyone who voted,” said the president, “I want you to know that I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you too.” Whether Obama can influence those voters who didn’t participate on Tuesday or not, by speaking of that larger electorate, he reminded everyone that there is a much larger bloc of voters out there evaluating whatever happens next. Now that Republicans are taking a leadership position, the broad mass of voters—not just the ones who participate in midterms—will be evaluating both parties.  

This was subtle. It wasn’t a day for stark warnings, however. The president was conciliatory and repeatedly said he was open to hearing from Republicans. He said he’d like to share some Kentucky bourbon with incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Note, White House handlers: McConnell apparently likes his in a Manhattan.) The president pointed to possible common ground on infrastructure legislation and efforts to improve and expand early childhood education. He mentioned tax reform, something McConnell also said was an issue the two leaders could theoretically work together on. Both men, at least at this early moment, seemed to recognize that the poll results showed the country desperate for some measure of bipartisanship.

Immigration reform is the real first test. President Obama has said that he will act if Congress doesn’t. McConnell has said if Obama did that, it would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull.” It doesn’t seem like the president is inclined to wait. He suggested that his executive orders could be superseded by whatever legislation the House and Senate agreed on. 

If the president goes forward, he weakens House Speaker John Boehner and McConnell’s leverage with their members. House and Senate leaders are never going to get their members to agree to any future deals on immigration (or any other issues that require trusting the president) if he takes unilateral action on immigration. That’s because their voters are going to think individual Republicans are turncoats for working with a president who would act like that. 

Maybe the president wants to exacerbate existing tensions within the GOP by playing hardball on the executive orders. But that’s a pretty aggressive bet. And since Republicans are most irritated by the president’s unilateralism, it’s safe to say that action in advance of legislation would swamp any more happy talk. 

There are some veto fights coming, and the push and pull over immigration will be an early test of whether the politicians, the press, and the people can handle the messy process that is going to define this next period. If it is accepted that both sides are going to follow their ambitions, clash, veto, repair, and proceed to a bruising adult solution, then there might be some actual progress. If any confrontation immediately escalates to a shutdown or the press treats a veto as a catastrophic event (as opposed to a necessary routine devised by the founders), then we’re in for another grim period. 

McConnell mentioned several times that there will be no government shutdowns on his watch and no debt ceiling breaches. His rise to power in the Senate marks the return of a person steeped in the traditions of an older institution where people were blunt and tough and got things done. That’s the Senate that Vice President Biden loved so much, and now with Sen. Harry Reid in the minority, perhaps Biden will return to his old haunts to negotiate with McConnell. The two have notched several deals in the period of dysfunction of the last several years. But the president can’t outsource the task; he’ll have to deal with the new majority more than he has in the past. “Whether it’s having a drink with Mitch McConnell or letting John Boehner beat me again at golf,” Obama said, he was willing to do anything to get something done. Friday he’ll meet with leaders from both parties at the White House for lunch. Perhaps he should serve Manhattans.