What, Me Worry?

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

Put away the spitballs. Obama and the newly ascendant Republicans may actually get something done.

It's often darkest just before it's -- pitch black. But other times a dim ray of something resembling light can break through. With the voters sending a strong message that they want action on jobs, our new post-shellacking period could be a bit shinier than expected. Call it Pollyannaish, but Barack Obama, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell might actually get some things done together on the economy--pro-growth Eisenhower Republican initiatives acceptable to both parties and pleasing to voters hungry for signs of cooperation. Whether or not these put many Americans to work, they're worth a try. There could be a political upside: in the '90s, both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich saw their approval ratings rise when they worked together on deficit reduction and welfare reform. Even super-partisans have to deliver when they hold power.

At first glance it looks as if Obama's extended hand has been met once again by a clenched fist from Republicans. Just as there was no honeymoon after the Obama inauguration in January 2009, the GOP wasted no time last week on post-election bipartisan niceties. On the day after Obama's conciliatory news conference, Speaker-in-waiting Boehner said the president was still in "some denial" about the election, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell only slightly qualified his now-famous pre-election insistence that "the single most important thing we want to achieve" is defeating the president in 2012.

McConnell's latest brushback pitch was mostly a simple acknowledgment that Obama still holds the veto pen. What the owlish Kentuckian now calls the "health-care spending bill" can be tweaked but not repealed without a new president in 2013. If they harp on it too much, Republicans risk seeming as distracted from job one as Obama did this year.

So if much of Obama's ambitious agenda (a cap-and-trade system, comprehensive immigration reform) is dead for now, so are GOP hopes for pushing through its wish list. Leaving job growth to the Federal Reserve won't be enough. The parties will have to compromise or go to the voters in 2012 with shared blame for a weak economy, at which point anti-incumbent independents will likely unleash their wrath again.

It's possible that Republicans are so bent on taking the White House that they will miscalculate (and thereby harm their chances) by refusing to cooperate on moderate ideas for job creation. "They've repeatedly opposed things they previously favored," says Jim Manley of Harry Reid's staff, referring to the GOP's abandoning support for a deficit commission and tax cuts for small business after learning that Obama favored them.

But that was when being the Party of No (or "Hell, No!" as Boehner put it) carried fewer risks. With even Karl Rove saying the GOP is "on probation," a better bet is that negotiations will commence on a few specific policy ideas. When McConnell joked to CNN last week that he's talking so much to the president that he's on Obama's speed dial, it was clear that process has already begun.

Inside the still-wonky White House, senior aides are starting to process the midterms by thinking about Venn diagrams, those logical exercises favored by economists in which you calculate where the interests of circle A (representing Obama) and circle B (representing Republicans) might overlap. Ratifying Obama's free-trade deals, for instance, just got much easier. Education reform is a passionate cause for both Boehner (who worked with Ted Kennedy on No Child Left Behind) and Obama, who is bucking the teachers' unions to achieve more accountability. …