Why the Second Term Honeymoon Won’t Be Romantic, But It Could Be Fruitful
I think President Obama may have a better second term honeymoon with Congress than most presidents. Not because Republicans like him any better, but because their political situation has sunk in.
After the 2008 elections, I think many Republicans viewed their defeat – failing to win the House, Senate, or Presidency – as something of a fluke. President Bush’s unpopularity and the world economic collapse were rare events and they knew the pendulum would swing back their way. With political energy from the Tea Party, their best political move seemed to be defiant obstruction. They continued to demonize Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and tried to capture the anti-government cynicism that had been deepened by the bailouts and job losses.
In 2012, the Republican reaction to losing has been far different, mostly because they’d thought the political and economic terrain strongly favored them. No president since Roosevelt had been re-elected with such high unemployment. Obama’s job approval numbers were middling. Unlike 2008, their base seemed to have greater enthusiasm and, also unlike last time, they had a financial advantage through the newly unleashed Super PACs. Losing the Presidency and falling further behind in the Senate shocked them. In their view, they should have won. In other words, there was no explaining it away as a fluke of circumstance.
I think that understanding is leading many smart Republicans to realize they have structural and ideological hurdles – and that understanding may lead to a greater willingness to work with the President and Democrats in the short term. They cannot afford to continue alienating Latinos, so they will have to be more constructive on immigration, and we've seen that beginning to happen already. They were hurt in the election because they were forced to defend lower taxes for the rich, even if it meant no deal on deficits, entitlements, and tax reform. It is a huge political burden and that will force them to be more flexible in “fiscal cliff” negotiations. And now that they've lost five Senate seats due to nominating weak Tea Party candidates (DE, CO, NV in 2008; IN and MO in 2012), I’m sure Republican strategists realize they can’t continue to just genuflect to that wing of the party.
I don’t think Republicans are going roll over to Democrats or make things easy. The House Republican Conference is a very conservative group, and not shy about blocking what they oppose. Their rhetoric, in some cases, will be as tough as ever. But I think Republicans will see it as in their political interest to clear away some troublesome issues in the short run – deficit and tax negotiations, immigration reform – and find new, more politically useful ground on which to fight.