December 19, 2012

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Rather than come to some agreement with the administration, House Republicans have switched to a unilateral plan to deal with the fiscal cliff: Bush-era tax rates would remain for all income under $1 million.

The White House has now announced that Obama would veto any such measure, and the House GOP’s “plan B” isn’t going anywhere. But it signifies something larger about what to expect in Obama’s second term: That none of the incentives have changed for Republicans, meaning they still have no reason to cooperate with the President. In other words: The next four years may be largely the same as the last four.

The GOP’s current behavior is out of sync with the public’s priorities, as expressed in the election, where solid majorities reelected President Obama and sent more Democrats to the Senate. But that likely won’t matter to Republicans, because the odds are good that in the end they won’t incur public discontent for failing to cooperate. As the latest ABC News/Washington Post survey shows, there’s a strong disconnect between how Americans view the president, and how they view the question of whether he has a mandate to carry out his agenda.

Fifty-four percent of Americans approve of his job performance, and 58 percent trust him to protect the middle class — versus 32 percent for Republicans. What’s more, 50 percent trust him to cope with “the main problems the nation faces over the next few years,” and 54 percent trust his handling of the economy. Despite all of this, 56 percent say Obama does not have “a mandate to carry out the agenda he presented during the presidential campaign,” but rather should “compromise on things the Republicans strongly oppose.”

Why? The answer lies in how the public perceives political conflict. As Mitch McConnell understood at the beginning of Obama’s term, most Americans don’t have strong views of policy, and aren’t even paying much attention. But what they do notice is process, and there, they operate from a simple premise: If both sides support something, it’s probably good. But if one side vocally opposes a measure, there must be something suspect — either the policy is bad, or the other side is not trying to meet the concerns of the offended party.

Congressional Republicans use this dynamic to great effect during Obama’s first term, and successfully portrayed his administration as hopelessly partisan. But this also has important implications for the next year of policy making. Republicans still want to weaken Obama’s presidency, and so the basic dynamic of his first term is still in effect. Take, for instance, immigration reform. If Obama tackles immigration reform from the left — or even the center — he will receive significant Republican pushback, if only because presidents polarize disputes they step into. And the mere fact of that pushback may sour the public on his package, even if they’re sensible reforms.

In other words, as much as Obama wants to escape the pattern of his first term, where each proposal was met by GOP opposition, and public discontent, it’s not clear he can.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.