WASHINGTON -- Democratic leaders and their supporters approach the November elections with a lumpy mix of messages. It can't be as bad as it looks (it is) and maybe losing the House would be a good thing for Democrats (it isn't) and Americans are spoiled, ungrateful brats (not really an electoral winner). The president shifts from issue to issue in a kind of ADD without energy, managing to be frenetic and uninteresting at the same time. Now he proposes a focus on job creation -- too late to influence the employment numbers before November but just in time to raise the question: Why has everything else been more urgent than jobs?
For nearly two years, American politics has been a controlled ideological experiment. A popular president, granted sizable House and Senate majorities, passed the agenda nearly every Democrat wanted -- a large stimulus package and a major expansion of the federal role in health care. The economic outcome has been universally disappointing. A group of highly motivated activists has concluded that the president is a European-style social democrat who threatens the capitalist system. Many other Americans suspect he is simply out of his depth.
Soon another test commences. Barring some decisive intervening event, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner seem fated to be awkward partners in the public good. Beyond November, there will be a single political question: Can divided government work? The answer: Probably not.
On the Republican side following the election, ideology will be ascendant while congressional leadership will be weak. Since no Newt Gingrich-like figure has emerged to direct the revolution of 2010, Republican leaders will be carried along by its current. Boehner will have 40, 50 or 60 new Republican House members for whom any spending is too much, making even the normal work of passing annual appropriations bills difficult. The Senate is likely to have a seriously strengthened tea party wing, making Mitch McConnell's life miserable, as either majority or minority leader. Neither Boehner nor McConnell will be in a position to cut deals with Obama without provoking the ideologically excitable.
And there is no indication that Obama would be predisposed to such deals anyway. "I don't see him as a triangulator," says Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "Obama is no Bill Clinton." Supporters view this as conviction; detractors as arrogance. In a divided government, both have the same outcome.
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.