Joe Klein: Where Obama Goes From Here

Barack Obama is bruised. Republicans are sounding humble. Is that a recipe for partnership?

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Tannen Murray / EPA

2010 MAY US President Barack Obama tries to speak in a driving rainstorm during Memorial Day observances at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Elwood, Illinois, USA, 31 May 2010. Memorial Day is observed in honor of U.S. service men and women who have sacrificed their lives for their country.

"We make a grave mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party," said Florida's newly elected Senator, Marco Rubio, who set the tone for this election cycle by chasing the incumbent governor, Charlie Crist, out of the Republican primary earlier this year. "What they are is a second chance." It was smart politics from a smart young politician — a sharp contrast to the smug certainty of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution of 1994 and also a welcome relief from the witless thuggery that marked this campaign season. Given the country's distress, Rubio's humility seemed the best possible response. As the evening progressed, though, and more Republicans stood at their victory podiums expressing the very same sentiment, it began to seem more of a talking point than a genuine belief. "This is not a time for celebration," concluded Ohio's John Boehner. "This is a time to roll up our sleeves."

And then Boehner did something entirely unexpected and palpably real: he cried. "I've spent my whole life chasing the American Dream," he began but could not continue. He tried several more times to tell his life story — from the impoverished son of a tavern owner, with 11 brothers and sisters, working dismal jobs to get through college — but broke down each time. It was a rare moment. It gave emotional heft and validity to the Republican victory. It suggested that Boehner might be different, wiser and more reasonable, this time.

Talk about American dreams: the notion that things might be different this time is at the top of the list. The patience and sacrifice necessary to actually make things different, which once stood at the heart of the national experiment, has evaporated in this era of instant gratification. The regal pendulum of political change — people used to speak of 30-year cycles — has devolved into a graceless, relentless metronome, clicking out heroes and spewing bums in political nanoseconds.

This was going to be a difficult election cycle for Democrats under the best of circumstances, just as 2008 was never going to be a Republican year. The reason in both cases was the same: the sour economy and the counterintuitive complexity of the remedies necessary to save it from collapse. Bail out the banks whose flagrant irresponsibility caused the problem? Spend more money even though you're in a deficit? It was easy for casually informed citizens to wonder, What on earth are these politicians thinking?

It could be argued that the Democrats, and the President, did better than they had any right to expect this year. They certainly did better than Bill Clinton in 1994, who lost both houses of Congress even though unemployment was a measly 5.6%. They had some stunning help from the Republicans, who experienced an internal purge comparable only with that of the antiwar, countercultural Democrats of the early 1970s. The Tea Party rebellion was, perhaps, a necessary corrective to the sloppy, inconsistent Republicanism of George W. Bush's presidency. But it raised up some of the least qualified — indeed, loony — candidates for high office in recent history, and it saved the Senate for the Democrats.

Still, the Democratic performance this year was one of the more mystifying, and craven, in memory. Usually, a political party loses when it has failed to do its job. These Democrats lost because they succeeded in doing what they've been promising for decades. They enacted their fantasies, starting with health care reform, and then ran away from their successes. Why on earth would a political party enact major pieces of legislation and then refuse to take credit for them? It is too easy, though not entirely inaccurate, to argue that leaders like Nancy Pelosi stood too far from the mainstream — her forceful advocacy of cap-and-trade legislation certainly proved politically disastrous. Pelosi's myopia also allowed her party to lard the stimulus bill with a perennial Democratic wish list, much of which — like $2 billion more for Head Start — had little to do with the immediate economic crisis. House Democrats transformed the health care bill into a 16 million–person expansion of Medicaid instead of inviting those people into the more efficient health-insurance superstores, or exchanges, the bill created. But at the heart of that incoherent performance stands the President, as opaque a character as we've seen in the Oval Office in a great while.

Here's an interesting, largely unknown fact: the Obama Administration has been wildly successful in reversing the tide of illegal immigration across the Mexican border. The number of illegal immigrants declined by an estimated 800,000 in 2009. This was partly attributable to the lousy economy — not so many jobs here anymore — but it was also a result of the Administration's amped-up security efforts at the border. This is the sort of progress that politicians routinely trumpet. This President didn't, even though illegal immigration is an issue that has gut-level resonance with the working-class Democrats and independents who turned against him this year. This is political malpractice of the highest order, as is the President's inability — or unwillingness — to tell 95% of the public about the tax cut he bestowed on them, or the prescription-drug doughnut-hole he filled for senior citizens. He never explained, in ways the public could understand, the restraints placed on Wall Street in the financial-regulatory-reform act or the new rights inherent in the health care reform bill. Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper, who inserted the popular provision allowing children up to the age of 26 to remain on their parents' health care plan, faced a difficult re-election fight this year. The President never saw fit to campaign with her and thereby publicize her idea. Dahlkemper lost.

"Some election nights are more fun than others," Obama said at the beginning of his day-after press conference. At the end, he said that getting a "shellacking" was a necessary learning experience, something most Presidents — he cited Clinton and Ronald Reagan — had to suffer. The casual tone was a not entirely successful attempt to establish the informality and intimacy that have eluded his presidency. He was contrite, without making any of the fulsome concessions his opponents and the press were looking for. Everything he said made sense, but it seemed grudging, perfunctory — and arid compared with John Boehner's tears.

What will Obama do? What can he do? It all depends on the Republicans, of course. He will propose a new, painless energy and infrastructure package. He will accede to moderations in his health care plan, reducing the regulatory burden on small businesses and perhaps incorporating some form of malpractice reform. But he won't allow the basics of the plan to be gutted. He will agree to tax reductions — perhaps a brief delay in restoring the Clinton rates for the wealthy, perhaps a more dramatic payroll tax holiday (as proposed by Ohio's new Republican Senator, Rob Portman) to jump-start the economy. He will take his deficit-reduction commission's recommendation for reforming Social Security, a provision favored more by Republicans than Democrats, and try to pass some form of it, which would be regarded as a historic achievement.

But Obama's real agenda will be to outwit and outmaneuver the Republicans, as Clinton did after his shellacking in 1994, so that he can live to fight another term. He will have to make concessions — graciously, as if he believed in them (as Clinton did with welfare reform). But he'll also have to sense when to stand firm, when to push back (as Clinton did after he allowed the Republicans to shut down the government). He will have to hope for good news from overseas; he will have to pray nothing awful happens.

Obama will probably never shed a tear in our presence. Nor will he indulge in what he regards as cheesy emotional displays of anger or enthusiasm. Without those tools, he'll have to be a much better working politician than he has been. But he remains widely respected by the American people, if not quite loved. And the next click of the political metronome could be heading his way.