Why you should care

Divided government in Washington next year could open the door—just a crack—for some real policy changes that have implications for Americans and the globe.

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Barack Obama may have a whole lot more sympathy for Bill Clinton come next January.

Like Clinton in the wake of the ’94 Republican Revolution, President Obama may well have to make the trek up Pennsylvania Avenue, hat in hand, to ask a hostile, Republican-controlled Congress, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Clinton didn’t beat around the bush when he made the annual presidential pilgrimage up to Capitol Hill for his 1995 State of the Union address.

He couldn’t: The political reality was staring him in the face, in the form of 84 new Republican members of Congress.

”As I look out at you, I know how some of you must have felt in 1992,” joked the first-term president—just two years removed from his own upset of Republican George H.W. Bush. Shifting quickly to a more serious tone, he pointed out that in both the ’92 and ’94 elections, ”we didn’t hear America singing—we heard America shouting.”

“Now all of us,” exhorted Clinton, ”Republicans and Democrats alike, must say, ’We hear you. We will work together to earn the jobs you have given us.’”

US President Bill Clinton (C) is joined by Vice President Al Gore (L) and Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich iduring President Clinton's State of the Union address 24 January 1995.

President Bill Clinton with Vice President Al Gore and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Source AFP/Getty

Clinton initially found some ways to do just that, on issues like welfare reform. Could Obama do the same? Or will he be reduced largely to lame duck status, à la George W. Bush when Democrats took over Congress during his last two years in office (at least until the financial crisis hit and he rallied them to help with the emergency response)?

The current president knows well the travails of confronting a Republican-controlled House. But with two weeks to go before voting day, polling shows the odds are also against Democrats hanging onto the Senate, as well. That would stick Obama with a Congress entirely controlled by the opposing party for the final two years of his presidency.

Could Obama find common ground with Capitol Hill Republicans the way Clinton did? Or is he likely to be reduced to lame duck status, à la George W. Bush?

The implications for the White House are significant. The chances for confirming any major presidential nominations would go to virtually nil. Bills to gut health care would all but certainly flood the president’s desk—and invite his veto.

Over flowing trash bins during the government shutdown with the Washington Monument in the background.

Trash bins overflow during the government shutdown

Source Jon Hicks/Corbis

But for the Obama White House, there would be one significant opportunity for consensus: trade.

In addition to centrist Democrats, a chunk of the Republican caucus supports current White House negotiations on two sweeping free-trade agreements—one with Europe (known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and another with a bloc of countries along the Pacific Rim (known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership)—that together encompass a huge chunk of the world’s commerce.

Democratic leaders backed away from Obama’s trade agenda earlier this year, not wanting to alienate the party’s liberal base. But should Republicans win the Senate, there are incentives for both sides to cooperate on trade.

For the GOP, it’s an opportunity to burnish their bipartisan bona fides and prove they can govern, not just obstruct.

The momentum to reach across the aisle and cut some bipartisan deals could also extend to reform efforts on American mortgage lending and the hot-button issue of immigration.

”We’re all expecting that if we get into the majority, the Senate’s going to function,” insists Tennessee Republican Bob Corker. ”If we get into the majority and that didn’t happen, I can assure you … the vast majority of the Republican caucus will be highly disappointed.”

It would also be something of a peace offering to the pro-business community, a traditional GOP constituency that has been rankled by some of the House’s more extreme budget-cutting positions in recent years.

For Obama, meanwhile, it would mean delivering on his promise to expand American exports and create more American jobs (something some of his more liberal supporters might dispute).

Of course, any agreement on trade assumes that the United States is able to work out its differences with Japan, which has bogged down the TPP talks, and assuage Europeans about consumer protections, among other things.

The momentum to reach across the aisle and cut some bipartisan deals could also extend to reform efforts on American mortgage lending (where there’s consensus that the current system dominated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is broken) and the hot-button issue of immigration, although it’s unlikely the GOP would agree to the sort of comprehensive immigration package that Obama and Democrats have been pushing for.

“There’s going to be a moment there for Kumbaya to some degree,’” agrees one veteran Capitol Hill staffer turned lobbyist, who is watching congressional action closely.

But the window for compromise is likely to be a narrow one, as Washington quickly swings its attention from one election to the next: a 2016 contest with a much bigger prize.

And in two years’ time, the tables will be turned, with Democrats on the offensive and Republicans stuck defending a whole host of vulnerable Senate seats. The presidential election is also guaranteed to propel a burst of energy on the Left.

So while Congressional Republicans are bound to be emboldened should they win that 2014 mandate, Democrats will have little incentive to cave to conservative lines in the sand when their own fortunes could change in another two short years.

“A lot of Democrats who I talk to in town have already sort of reset their watches to 2016,” says the former Capitol Hill staffer. “So not a whole heck of lot is going to happen until then.”

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