Chance to undo the bitter partisanship

President Barack Obama’s re-election, coupled with Republicans’ continued hold on the House, gives both parties a chance to rethink, and perhaps undo, the bitter partisanship that has gripped Washington for four years and frustrated Americans who see big problems going unsolved.

It won’t be easy. Both sides claim, with some justification, a mandate from the voters.

“We’ll have as much of a mandate as he will,” House Speaker John Boehner, said shortly before the election, anticipating the results.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was frostier in his post-election remarks. “The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term,” he said.

“Now it’s time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House,” he said, “and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office.”

After three straight swing elections, Americans decided to keep Obama in the White House, leave Republicans in control of the House, and let Democrats stay atop the Senate, with Republicans able to block measures with filibusters.

There’s an irony, or self-flagellation, there. Americans express exasperation at the partisan sniping and gridlock that pushed the nation to the brink of defaulting on its loans last year, and which might trigger new crises soon. The narrowness of Obama’s win accurately reflects the nation’s nearly 50-50 partisan divide. It’s a split that will make progress on any major issues difficult for at least another two years, and probably longer.

Every newly elected president claims a mandate, and Obama can point to the roughly $1bn (€780m) Mitt Romney and his GOP allies spent trying to oust him. Yet, for all its tactical brilliance, Obama’s campaign was built on modest ideas. It focused on helping the middle class, which is a coalition of identity, not ideology.

It may have been a status quo election. But if the White House and congressional Republicans simply stand their ground on taxes and other issues, they run risks — not just for the nation’s well-being, but also for the legacies of a barrier-breaking president and a Republican Party that has tapped a deep vein of conservative, almost libertarian emotion.

In many ways, of course, Obama’s place in history is assured. The first black to be elected president has now joined eight other men who, since 1900, won the office more than once. His biggest first-term achievement — the “Obamacare” health delivery overhaul — is safe from repeal by a president Mitt Romney.

Obama’s other top goals, however, were largely thwarted by a united Republican Party that fought him at almost every turn. Republicans provided not a single House or Senate vote for the health care law. They beat back his efforts to end the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest households.

Obama offered an olive branch in his victory speech early yesterday: “In the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together.”

Republican leaders announced four years ago their top goal was to deny Obama a second term. On Tuesday, they lost, even though the nation’s high unemployment seemed to make Obama ripe for defeat. Some of Romney’s loss will be traced to Americans’ discontent with an opposition party that refused to compromise on big issues even when it’s obvious that neither party can get everything it wants.

Boehner, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP officials now must decide where to bend and where to keep standing firm. They’ll have to tip their hand soon. A package of huge tax hikes and spending cuts — the “fiscal cliff” and which both parties deeply dislike — is scheduled to take effect in the new year.

So far, Republicans have adamantly refused to raise taxes, even on the richest Americans, as part of a deficit-reduction package. Obama and other Democrats say such tax hikes must be part of the deal. They will point to the election as validation. Boehner will point to his sustained majority.

Democrats think Obama learned hard lessons in his first four years, including a realisation that he must get deeply involved in the sometimes unpleasant business of crafting and negotiating legislation.

“The American people have made it pretty clear that they are sick of gridlock and fighting,” said Jim Manley, a former Democratic Senate aide. Boehner and McConnell, he said, “have figured out that the tea party has done enormous damage to their brand, to say nothing about the economy, and something has to change.”

At the same time, Manley said, “the president is going to have to play a more forceful role in the legislative process.”

Obama signalled some of his second-term goals in a recent Des Moines Register interview. The fiscal cliff’s economic threat is so severe, he said, that a congressional compromise is likely.

“It will probably be messy,” the president said. “But I am absolutely confident we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I’ve been offering to the Republicans.”

It calls for $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue.

“The second thing I’m confident we’ll get done next year is immigration reform,” he said.

Some Washington veterans say Boehner is posturing when he claims his party won as big a mandate as Obama did. When Republicans see that the no-new-taxes argument lost Tuesday, Boehner “is certain to come to the table to begin to deal,” said Matt Bennett of the Democratic-leaning think tank Third Way.

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