The silver lining of President Obama’s midterm “shellacking” may well be an improvement in political cooperation, as former President Jimmy Carter cautiously predicted in an interview with comedian Bill Maher two weeks ago. Until last Tuesday, Republicans could hurl criticism comfortably from the sidelines without actually having to harbor the responsibility of governing. Now that the tables have turned and the Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives, their days of scoring political points by resisting compromise with the Obama administration are over.
Every president needs a foil. And when a president faces electoral repudiation, he usually can adopt one of two courses: Work with the opposition or resist compromise and cast Congress as a roadblock to progress. When Bill Clinton lost the House and the Senate to Republicans in 1994, he managed to adopt the former strategy and repositioned himself to the center, cutting deals with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and declaring, “The era of big government is over.”
In 1946, Harry Truman took the opposite path, casting the Republican Congress as a “do-nothing” group whose failure to reach consensus was harming the country.
Both Clinton and Truman won improbable re-elections. Yet of course, the question of whether Obama can use his party’s defeat in the midterms last week as a platform for a political comeback is still up in the air.
We all should hope for the sake of the country that Obama chooses to seek compromise. The brilliantly unifying rhetoric of his career leaves little doubt that the president is capable of generating consensus, and with unemployment hovering at near 9 percent and job growth inching along at an unacceptable pace, now would be a good time to deploy the political skills that launched him to the White House.
Where is there room for agreement? On the tax code, for one. While Democrats and Republicans disagree on the levels at which the wealthiest Americans should be taxed, leaders in both parties have declared that they do not wish to see the Bush-era tax cuts expire for the middle class at the end of this year. Passing a bill that continues George W. Bush’s tax cuts for middle class Americans should be a top priority for the new Congress. To make sure that this happens, Obama must be willing to negotiate, even on hot-button particulars like tax hikes for top income earners.
Another issue on which the president can perhaps count on Republican support is education reform. During the 2008 campaign, Obama took significant flak from teachers’ unions for his support of charter schools and performance-based teacher pay. This position, which has in the past been associated primarily with conservatives, was once a political liability, but it now presents a chance for Obama to work with Republicans on a major domestic issue.
It’s impossible to eliminate political posturing in Washington. But perhaps the end of the midterm elections will mark the beginning of a more accountable government, at least until the next election cycle.
The Republicans can no longer cast the nation’s woes solely on the shoulders of the president without seeming naive, since they now control the House. Likewise, the Democrats can no longer credibly blame the country’s current problems on arcane filibuster rules or – as they did frequently during their midterm campaigns – on the Bush administration, since they’ve held Congress themselves for four years.
It’s certainly a long shot, but maybe, just maybe, we will see Congress and the president working together meaningfully on legislation in the months ahead.
Peter Fulham is a sophomore in the College. He can be reached at fulhamthehoya.com. POTOMAC VIEWS appears every other Friday”