Matthew Lifson, Columnist
Ideology: Democrat | Writing from: Brown University

The midterm elections are 53 days away, and the best available data forecasts Republicans will take back the House of Representatives while Democrats will retain the Senate by a margin of two or three votes. Polls and models are no substitute for the ballot box, yet it is nonetheless worthwhile to imagine Obama’s next two years under those most likely of circumstances.

Democrats caution a GOP Congress will mean a return to the policies of President Bush and the repeal of Obama’s accomplishments thus far, but that is stump-speech hyperbole. If Speaker Boehner succeeds Speaker Pelosi, Republicans will have less influence over the agenda than Democrats did after taking both chambers in 2006.

Even if Republicans can line their entire caucus up behind privatizing Social Security or eliminating the Department of Education, they would still be eighteen or nineteen Senators short of the 60 necessary to break a Democratic filibuster, assuming the cooperation of their more liberal members. Should Republicans somehow get a bill to Obama’s desk, the inevitable veto could be overridden only by a prohibitory 290 votes in the House and 67 in the Senate.

Without the votes to enact their own legislative program, Republicans could cooperate with Democrats while using their improved negotiating position to reach common ground on tax or entitlement reform; however, conservatives know from experience that compromise is politically risky if it means letting a Democratic president succeed.

Voters recognize the existence of checks and balances in the abstract, but in practice they tend to blame and praise the president as if he were a monarch, personally responsible for everything under his watch.

A Republican-controlled Congress compromised with President Clinton to reform welfare and balance the budget, but those accomplishments are now associated almost exclusively with Clinton, and it was the Democrats who picked up thirteen seats in 1996 and 1998.

Unified obstruction, by contrast, has produced the present anti-Democratic environment and preceded the Republican Revolution of 1994 when they picked up 54 House and eight Senate seats. When Republicans undermine governance with a Democrat at the helm, voters predictably take out their frustration on Democrats.

Republicans will avoid shutting down the government outright because they remember the blowback from their 1995 tantrum, but they will gum up the works and slow the government to a crawl through methods too subtle to arouse voters. They cannot repeal health-care reform, but they can refuse to fund it, and they will postpone confirming Obama’s judicial and executive branch nominees while filling the calendar with ethics hearings to fish for scandals.

Congressional Democrats will have little recourse against these tactics. Considering the difficulty of passing legislation with a 75-member margin in the House and 59 votes in the Senate, it is a safe bet that nothing substantive will emerge from the legislative branch until 2013. Ending a Republican filibuster with only 52 or 53 Democratic senators will be next to impossible, and because Democrats forwent passing a budget this year, reconciliation is procedurally unavailable.

The success of the Democratic agenda, then, will depend on how Obama, saddled with a paralyzed Congress, can capitalize on the unilateral powers of the presidency. It will be up to him to use executive orders, memoranda and persuasion to manage the implementation of health-care and Wall Street reform while relying on recess appointments to build his team. If Obama is feeling particularly bold, expect him to attack carbon emissions through Environmental Protection Agency regulations instead of waiting for a statutory solution.

Obama may also transition from the domestic issues that have defined his presidency so far to international affairs, where Congress has traditionally deferred to the president. That would mean prioritizing American engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, a peace settlement in the Middle East and the negotiation of new trade deals.

If Obama cannot rise to this challenge, both his second term and his legacy as an effective president are at stake. When Republicans storm Congress, we will learn whether Obama is a leader capable of growing his office or just a lucky figurehead temporarily enabled by overwhelming Democratic majorities.

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