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More gridlock ahead

Michael KniggeNovember 5, 2014

The Republican victory in Congress will worsen gridlock in Washington. Obama will be forced to spend his final two years in office defending his legacy and trying to govern without Congress, says DW's Michael Knigge.

Obama Photo: (AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

After having failed to win Congress in the 2010 and 2012 midterm elections, the Republicans finally achieved their goal to gain full control of America's legislature in their third try. The writing for this had been on the wall for some time.

Conditions for a Republican victory were excellent ahead of Tuesday's midterm elections in the United States: a Democratic president whose popularity rating is now almost in George W. Bush territory, a Senate election calendar that favors Republicans and the general tendency of voters to use midterms to vent their frustration at the president's party.

Optimists may still believe that Congressional Republicans will use their new grip on power to finally reverse course and start working with the president instead of trying to block every initiative coming out of the White House.

They point to the fact that historically periods of a divided government were the most productive in terms of the number of bills passed. They also argue that it is in the Republicans' self-interest to convince voters that the GOP is not merely a force for obstruction and that it can also be productive.

No reason for optimism

But that assumes that the elected Republican lawmakers and have their party's and the country's best interests in mind and act rationally and responsibly towards that goal. Unfortunately, that is not the case as Congressional Republicans have proven in the past by shutting down the government last year and by their continuous opposition to immigration reform.

Deutsche Welle Michael Knigge
Michael Knigge reports on transatlantic issues for DWImage: DW/P. Henriksen

Both instances are classic examples of Republican obstructionism. Instead of producing tangible benefits for the electorate, the Tea Party wing drove Congressional Republicans to adopt positions that cater to the vocal demands of radical regional Republicans, not the national party. That this behavior could undermine the party's electability with mainstream voters and the increasingly relevant Latino electorate come 2016 does not concern Tea Party activists in the South or elsewhere.

Judged by their previous actions, it is wishful thinking to expect that a Republican Congress - with even more rather than fewer hard-line conservatives - will suddenly seek compromise with a president many of them loathe. Instead, President Obama must prepare for an even more hostile legislature.

Protecting the legacy

Since his re-election, Obama has finally accepted that compromise with Congressional Republicans is all but impossible and has tried to govern using executive orders instead of trying to forge deals with Congress. The trend toward using presidential orders to drive his agenda is likely to increase, but Obama will also find himself using his veto power to block Republicans. The result could be - as hard to be believe as it may be - an even more partisan and divided political climate in the United States than is currently the case.

With this in mind, Obama must focus on sewing up and shoring up the two key projects of his presidency as any new political initiatives have little chance of succeeding.

Domestically, the White House must try to protect and consolidate Obama's truly historical achievement - the Affordable Care Act - from Republican plans to roll it back even though it has drastically reduced the number of uninsured Americans.

Internationally, Obama should try to wrap up what could be an equally historical deal with Iran on that country's nuclear program. While Obama can lift sanctions temporarily via executive order, he would need Congress to ratify a full-fledged deal. He will have to hope that should a preliminary agreement be reached and put in place with Tehran, it could become too politically costly for Republicans to stymie such an agreement.

The fate of Obama's signature achievements and his legacy then could depend on his final two years in office. In 2008, Senator Obama was elected president along with a Democratic Congress. In 2014, it will be up to President Obama to defend his legacy against a Republican Congress.