For Obama, possibility and peril in next Congress

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 9:53 AM

One thing is certain as President Obama looks beyond Tuesday to the second half of his term: He'll have far fewer partisan friends to work with on Capitol Hill.

Democrats will hold fewer House and Senate seats - and may lose one or both chambers of Congress - after elections that administration officials say is not a referendum on their early record.

While Obama's name may not be on the Tuesday ballot, it will be on the next one two years from now. And that fact will help guide the administration's relationship with the next Congress, which it hopes to manage in part by leaning on it as little as possible.

Within the White House, senior officials see both political opportunity and peril in a larger Republican presence on Capitol Hill.

That includes what political analysts say is the very real possibility of a fiscal confrontation reminiscent of those that shut down the government in 1990 and 1995 - the latter of which assisted President Clinton in his own political recovery after a midterm trouncing.

Guiding Obama's view of the next Congress is a political desire to hold a larger Republican caucus more accountable for governing, whether it's dealing with the deficit or passing energy reform. He intends to create a record for himself and for an opposition party with a larger foothold in government to run on as the 2012 campaign takes shape.

Looking ahead to Obama's probable post-election situation, historians say he has a choice between Harry S. Truman's confrontational approach to the Republican-controlled "do-nothing Congress" or Clinton's post-1994 triangulation strategy, which was part get what you can from Congress, part hold the GOP responsible for governing.

Both strategies resulted in successful reelection campaigns.

Senior administration officials say Obama's first two years, dominated by large pieces of polarizing legislation, will give way to a second half focused on ensuring that such measures as health care and financial regulatory reform are put in place correctly.

One senior administration official called the change a matter of "widening the playing field" from Congress to the courts and state legislatures. The goal: to ensure that the public begins to benefit directly from Obama's achievements in Congress as the reelection effort begins.

But Obama has several outstanding legislative goals, among them immigration and energy reform, that will require him to work with Congress. How to achieve them - or at least position the president to reap political gain if they fail - will be shaping White House strategy in the months ahead.

"There is too much that involves Congress to simply ignore it, and the world will not stop changing just because we are entering an era of divided government," said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration. "Are we simply going to sit on our hands?"

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