Here's Barack Obama's problem when it comes to dealing with newly elected Republican members of Congress. They are convinced they won because voters rejected Obama's agenda of national health care, spending and bailouts. But Obama cannot admit that his agenda -- his legacy -- is fundamentally flawed and that voters repudiated it. The result will be irreconcilable conflict.
Just look at Ron Johnson, a man likely to be one of the more influential members of the new GOP class in the Senate. Last year, he was a highly successful plastics manufacturer in Oshkosh, Wis., who had never even thought about running for public office. Then he watched Obama and congressional Democrats march through the stimulus, the earmark-laden budget, the auto bailouts, and, finally, Obamacare.
"For me, the final straw was when they passed the health-care bill," Johnson said on the campaign trail. "I recognized that it is the single greatest assault on our freedom in my lifetime. It is absolutely designed to lead to a government takeover of our health-care system. And we don't have to theorize what that is going to result in. It's going to result in rationed care, particularly for the elderly, particularly for the very ill. It's going to lower the quality of our care and reduce medical innovation."
When Johnson decided to run, he based his candidacy on just two issues: cutting federal spending and repealing Obamacare. Not amending it, not tweaking it here and there -- Johnson wants to throw the whole thing out and start over. Now that he has won -- defeating Democratic legend and Obamacare defender Russ Feingold -- Johnson is determined to do just that. And he doesn't appear to be the type of man who casually abandons campaign promises.
Contrast that with how President Obama answered a question about national health care during his post-election news conference. "Well, I know that there's some Republican candidates who ... feel very strongly about it," the president said. "Now, if the Republicans have ideas for how to improve our health-care system, if they want to suggest modifications that would deliver faster and more effective reform to a health-care system that has been wildly expensive for too many families and businesses and certainly for our federal government, I'm happy to consider some of those ideas."
In other words, Obama is open to suggestions to make Obamacare a reality more quickly. That is not at all what the new Republican lawmakers have in mind. "We need to reverse course," Johnson told supporters at his victory party. He believes that's why he was elected.
Meanwhile, to justify his hard-line defense of Obamacare and other initiatives, Obama is creating a counter-narrative to explain his party's defeat. It wasn't his policies that were to blame, it was the economy. "If right now we had 5 percent unemployment instead of 9.6 percent unemployment, then people would have more confidence in those policy choices," he told reporters. "The fact is, is that for most folks, proof of whether they work or not is has the economy gotten back to where it needs to be. And it hasn't." Obama's intentions could not be clearer: The White House will resist Republican demands for a course correction because the president will not concede that he's on the wrong course.
Of course, Johnson is just one Republican, and the GOP remains the minority party in the Senate. But there are dozens of other Republican newcomers in the House, soon to be under GOP control, who share his determination to repeal Obamacare. "The health-care bill that was enacted by the current Congress will kill jobs in America, ruin the best health-care system in the world and bankrupt our country," Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner said recently. "That means we have to do everything we can to try to repeal this bill and replace it with common sense reforms to bring down the cost of health care."
The new Republicans won't disagree with Obama on everything. There are sure to be initiatives both the White House and the GOP can support. But when it comes to the big things, the foundation of the Obama legacy, there will be little common ground. Whenever Barack Obama denies that voters are seeking a new direction, look for Ron Johnson and his colleagues to remind him otherwise.