There are a few areas where Obama and a Republican Congress might be surprised by agreement. Both endorse expanded trade, making the passage of three currently stalled bilateral trade agreements likely. Both would probably support budget process reform. Both may find a common interest in imposing budget caps on discretionary spending -- largely symbolic measures, since the real deficit problem lies elsewhere.
But these would be exceptions -- like Christmas cease-fires during years of trench warfare. Republican House members will vote to repeal Obama's health care reform -- a measure that will be killed by the Senate or by the president's veto pen. But Republicans could go further, fighting an ongoing battle to undermine implementation of the law.
There seems to be little chance that a divided government will produce serious entitlement reform, particularly because this is also a health care debate. Much of the deficit problem is created by Medicare, Medicaid and rising health costs. Republicans support reform that both empowers individuals and makes them primarily responsible for controlling costs -- the endorsement of which would require the president to admit he has taken the wrong approach to health reform for the past two years. "You can't take on Medicare and Medicaid reform without a president who supports it," says Ryan. "It will be 2013 before that happens."
If the administration succeeds in allowing income tax rates to rise on the wealthy this year, it would also complicate an entitlement bargain in the new Congress. Republicans would contend that tax increases have already been done -- and are now off the table. The president and Democrats would be unlikely to accept a reform-only approach that doesn't include tax increases. Another excuse for deadlock.
If the Republicans win big in November, the comparisons to 1994 will quickly be raised. After a series of bitter confrontations, Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton found agreement on a balanced budget and welfare reform -- successes of divided government. But this progress required a strong Republican leader and a flexible, willing president -- neither of which is likely to emerge from the 2010 election.