WASHINGTON -- "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future": Yogi Berra was not talking about post-midterms Washington, D.C., when he uttered this famous insight, but he might as well have been. It's not an exaggeration to say that America's next two years will be shaped by if President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who will take over as Senate majority leader, find a way to work together on crucial economic and policy decisions.
Observers are scrutinizing every exchange. Does a particular remark at a press conference mean a battle is brewing? Does the drinks menu at a bipartisan lunch at the White House offer some insights? What does history tell us about the chances that the leadership can get along?
A look at the most recent two-term presidencies finds it's possible that the last two years of the Obama administration could bring forth substantive, bipartisan achievements. But there are equally compelling reasons to predict gridlock that could shut down the government as soon as next month. Here’s a shorthand guide for each side of the argument.
Three Reasons Why The Next Two Years Will Be Productive
1. History says so. The doomsayers point out that Obama will have both houses of Congress against him, but every two-term president back to Dwight D. Eisenhower has had his party in the minority of Congress in his final years in office. President Bill Clinton had to deal with an opposite-party Congress for six years instead of just two.
Those lame duck presidents achieved significant legislation by drawing support from the opposition party even more than their own. Clinton signed into law a trade agreement with China. Democratic-leaning groups such as labor and human rights activists strongly opposed the law, but Clinton worked with Republicans to get it done. President George W. Bush persuaded Democrats to pass several laws in response to the financial collapse at the end of his term (e.g., TARP). Republicans opposed some of the bailouts, but the economic crisis was perilous enough that Democrats were willing to work with a president they loathed to avert disaster. President Ronald Reagan, also relying on Democratic support, signed a sweeping law that addressed homelessness, including job training, treatment and food stamps.
Obama may be able to make progress with bills that Republicans support such as changes to the tax code or funding for infrastructure. These issues have bipartisan backing; they just need to iron out the details.
“[T]he American people are still anxious about their futures, and that means that what we can do together to ensure that young people can afford college; what we can do together to rebuild our infrastructure so we’re competitive going forward; what we can do together to make sure that we’ve got a tax system that is fair and simple, and unleashes the dynamism of the economy; what we can do together to make sure that we keep the progress that we’ve been making in reducing the deficit while still making the investments we need to grow.... Those are all going to be areas where I’m very interested in hearing and sharing ideas,” Obama told congressional leaders on Friday.
2. The economy is improving. By nearly every measure, the economy is getting better. Unemployment is at a six-year low, and there have been 56 straight months of job creation. The deficit has shrunk, and inflation is not a worry.
Even though polls show only one-third of Americans think the economy is improving (which may explain the Democrats' terrible midterm results), it actually is. Both parties benefit if the economy continues to expand. Each side can claim credit, and neither wants to risk being blamed for a fiscal cliff crisis, a shutdown, or other form of gridlock that makes the financial markets uneasy. A growing stock market means growing retirement savings. That makes voters happy, and it lessens the urgency to make politically painful cuts to popular programs.
3. Both sides want to appear constructive. “I’m pretty familiar with our conference, including the new members who are coming in,” McConnell said on Wednesday. “The vast majority of them don’t feel they were sent to Washington to fight all the time.”
Republican leaders have told their membership that they will move forward with a comprehensive agenda that includes jobs bills and legislation to encourage the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Looking ahead, Republicans want voters to see them as capable of governing and deserving of the White House in 2016. And Obama wants to strengthen his legacy.
Three Reasons Why The Next Two Years Will Be A Do-Nothing Disaster
1. History says so. Obama and the Republicans have been at odds virtually since the day the 44th president was elected. Mitch McConnell, then the minority leader, announced that he would do anything necessary to make Obama a one-term president.
There has been essentially no major legislation in the Obama administration that could be considered bipartisan. Since Republicans took control of the House, the biggest accomplishments might be the Violence Against Women Act and funding to help recover from Hurricane Sandy, both of which passed despite heavy Republican opposition.
Two years ago, Boehner declared he would not negotiate one-on-one with the president, and he's kept his vow. Negotiations between the legislative and executive branches for the past four years largely have been defined by fiscal crises. The brinkmanship started in the summer of 2011, followed by the fiscal cliff and the 16-day government shutdown a year ago.
If the past four years are a guide, the GOP might not keep the lights on into 2015 or past the Dec. 11 deadline, when the current funding runs out -- let alone broker real deals on big issues.
2. The leaders are already bickering. The day after the election, Obama stuck to his position that he will sign executive orders to implement changes in immigration policy since the House failed to consider the Senate-passed bill. Boehner and McConnell snapped that doing so would not only be a mistake on the issue but would potentially end any hope of working with Congress.
“When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself. And he’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path,” Boehner said.
But at lunch on Friday, the president told congressional leaders they had two choices: Bring a bill to a vote and start making progress or he was going to sign the executive actions.
It's hard to see either side backing down. Boehner and McConnell aren't worried only (or even mainly) about a fight with Obama; they're worried about the GOP's right-wingers, who vehemently oppose anything that can be called immigration "amnesty" and who have made it clear that they're willing to dump the party's leaders if they don't feel respected.
The House is already trying to sue the president for his executive actions on the health care law. Executive action on immigration would only deepen their fury. If a political war gets started before Republicans officially take control of the Senate in January, there will be little hope that their relationship with the president could be mended in the final two years.
3. Tea partyers don't care about looking constructive. In fact, their base considers it anathema to reach across the aisle or to cooperate with the president.
In 2012, Obama and Boehner were able to put together the a “grand bargain” that would addresses taxes, spending and the debt. It looked, briefly, like an enormous victory. Boehner took it back to his members, and conservatives revolted. Any trust or common ground that Boehner and Obama had forged was destroyed. And although the tea partyers failed in their attempt to oust Boehner, they successfully let him know that his job security rests with them.
The elements in Boehner’s caucus that torpedoed that deal are still there; in fact, their numbers have only increased. The hard right has added new members such as U.S. Rep.-elect Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., who has argued that Kwanzaa should be eliminated and said the reason for the gender pay gap is that men care more about money than women do. And now Obama has to deal with fired-up conservatives in two chambers. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have led the charge in the Senate, and now they may add Iowa Republican Sen.-elect Joni Ernst to their ranks.
Those conservatives sound like they're already spoiling for a showdown. Cruz and a group of senators are insisting that a vote be taken to preempt a move by Obama on immigration.
“[S]hould you decline to defend the Senate and the Constitution from executive overreach, the undersigned senators will use all procedural means necessary to return the Senate’s focus during the lame duck session to resolving the constitutional crisis created by President Obama’s lawless amnesty,” the senators wrote to Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Even if GOP leaders could find a way to build some kind of relationship with Obama and reach a few deals on key issues, their most conservative members are likely to bring the process to an abrupt and ugly end. Obama would be left to do what he can with his executive powers, while Congress stalls and stymies him as much as it can.
In other words, what we can expect from here on is something akin to another of Yogi Berra's immortal phrases: "like déjà vu vu all over again."