After Midterm battering, don't expect Obama to 'play dead'
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US President Barack Obama has now lost both chambers of Congress. Given his track record in dealing with hostile Republicans in the House and Senate, is the US about to witness a White House shutdown?
The US woke up to the likelihood of further gridlock in Washington on Wednesday, a day after Republicans took control of what was already one of the least productive Congresses in recent history.
Tuesday’s Midterms saw the Grand Old Party (GOP) capture the Senate and strengthen its grip on the House of Representatives, setting the stage for more strife with the country’s Democratic president.
Obama is hardly the first president to find himself in this uncomfortable position.
“This is what tends to happen two years before the end of a presidency,” says FRANCE 24’s Washington correspondent, Philip Crowther. “The president and any incumbent party will get punished.”
But the scale of Tuesday’s defeat and Obama’s fraught relationship with the Republican camp have cast doubt on his ability to govern in the final two years of his tenure in the White House.
Battered, but not broken
Obama is now at the head of a demoralised minority party whose candidates largely shunned him during their campaigns.
In the run-up to the Midterms, very few Democrats were willing to appear with the unpopular president or, in the case of Kentucky candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, even admit that she voted for him.
As FRANCE 24’s Douglas Hanks put it, reporting from Miami, “Democrats did not want him within a hundred feet of them as they campaigned in their states. They wanted Bill Clinton there, they wanted Hillary Clinton there, some wanted Michelle Obama there – but they did not want Barack Obama.”
Ironically, Democrats’ best efforts to disown Obama during the campaign may actually allow him to distance himself – if only in part – from the Congressional debacle.
Speaking ahead of Tuesday’s vote, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president would “continue to look for partners on Capitol Hill, Democrats or Republicans, who are willing to work with him on policies that benefit middle-class families".
Earnest’s predecessor, Jay Carney, said he expected Obama to make an "all-out push" on his priorities.
“Obama is not going to roll over and play dead”, says Douglas Herbert, FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor, for whom the president now has “nothing to lose”.
“Tuesday’s shellacking doesn’t mean he won’t want to leave some kind of legacy and continue to push hard for legislation he deems important.”
While the shake-up in Congress means the president may have to make more concessions to his Republican opponents than he would have wished, he still has power to enforce policies through executive orders.
Obama had been expected to take executive action on issues like climate change and immigration reform, bypassing Congress.
But analysts have cast doubt on his ability – and willingness – to push through deeply divisive policies, such as plans to defer deportations for undocumented immigrants.
“He’s going to be looking for a couple of issues where the Republicans just want to give a little,” said Laurie Dundon of the Truman National Defence Project, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Dundon said a weakened Obama may be able to work with a Republican Congress on expanding free trade deals, “but he won’t be able to touch toxic issues like immigration.”
To veto, or not to
Obama will not be the only one struggling to see his policies through.
With the legislative branch now firmly in their grip, Republicans will feel they have a popular mandate to shape policy.
In the House of Representatives, Republicans are on track to secure their biggest majority since the 1940s – though this will still leave them shy of the number of seats required to override a presidential veto.
Republicans have made no secret of their plans to dismantle parts of the president’s signature health care reform, known as “Obamacare”, and ease restrictions imposed on the financial sector.
“Wall Street bankers and traders are probably breathing the biggest sigh of relief after Tuesday’s vote,” says FRANCE 24’s Douglas Herbert. “Republicans will no doubt try to dilute some of the regulations imposed since the financial crisis.”
Leadership of the Senate will also give Republicans greater clout in matters of defence and foreign policy, potentially scuppering Obama’s longstanding attempts to strike a deal with Iran over its disputed nuclear programme.
“You’re going to see committee chairmanship change in the Senate,” says Laurie Dundon of the Truman National Defence Project.
“You’re going to see [former Republican presidential candidate John] McCain coming back into a power position in the Senate’s Armed Services Committee; you’re going to see [Republican Senate leader] Mitch McConnell who has strong views on Iran sanctions.”
Obama has warned he will use his veto powers to shoot down policies detrimental to national security and thwart attempts to undo his flagship reforms – but this would come at a cost.
To Republicans, a frequent use of presidential vetoes and executive orders would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
The GOP-controlled Senate could retaliate by refusing to confirm Obama's appointments to judgeships, ambassadorships, cabinet positions and lower-level administration jobs.
However, analysts say more logjam in Washington is in neither party’s interest.
“Now [Republicans] are in power, now they’re going to be responsible for the economy, and the question is to what degree they’re going to start being blamed too,” John Aravosis, a Democratic political consultant, told FRANCE 24.
“This sets us up for a very interesting situation in two years,” says Aravosis. At which point, the Republicans’ rival for the White House will no longer be their favourite punching bag, Barack Obama.