Four more years of gridlock?

“Unless Democrats win a big victory in Congress, it’s hard to see how a second term would be any better,” says Jack Pitney, an American-government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Second terms never are.” Pitney was a congressional staffer on the Republican side in 1985, and finds the aftermath of President Reagan’s reelection instructive. “Even though Reagan had won a huge mandate (carrying 49 states), it didn’t translate into much legislative success, with the important exception of tax reform.” Reagan faced a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, a mirror image of the party divisions that frustrate Obama today.

Obama is more likely to win in a squeaker than with a Reagan-sized mandate. “You might say if the election of 2008 didn’t persuade Republicans to go along with the majority, why would a narrow Obama victory in 2012 have a better effect?” asks William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. If the president couldn’t quell fractious lawmakers when he had a 70 percent approval rating and a big electoral mandate, why would he be any more effective in dealing with Congress after a hard-fought reelection campaign in which the GOP has a better than even chance to capture control of the Senate, and keep its hold on the House?

Yet in politics, as in life, things rarely turn out as predicted. Unless a major backlash against the GOP restores Democratic primacy in the House and maintains the Democratic Senate, a unified Republican Congress might not be such a bad thing from Obama’s perspective, says Galston. “They would be co-owners of the government, and if they want to get the White House [in 2016] they’ve got to persuade the people they can say yes as well as no.” Given a truly divided government, Galston argues there could be greater cooperation between the Democratic White House and the Republican Congress. That would echo the Clinton presidency when the GOP Congress, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, served up welfare reform and a balanced budget for Clinton to sign.