With 26 days until the midterms, Americans are understandably focused on the election. But it’s not too early to begin thinking about what happens after the ballots are counted.
Virtually all observers agree that President Obama will face a Congress with more Republicans and fewer Democrats. The GOP will keep control of the House and either win the Senate or come very close.
Even Mr. Obama, a man abnormally detached from reality, must understand this. When his party loses ground, and especially if it loses the Senate, will he spend two more years polarizing Washington, attacking Republicans’ motives, complaining about GOP obstructionism, and circumventing Congress in lawless, even unconstitutional, ways?
Or will Mr. Obama try to salvage his presidency by doing what other presidents— Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and the two Bushes—did after electoral setbacks, which was working with the opposition party?
Mr. Obama may lack the political agility or vigor to abandon his current approach. Or he may reject change because he thinks his loyal opposition is stupid—“resistant to common-sense ideas,” as he said at a Monday fundraiser (one of seven this week)—and consisting of extremists outside the political mainstream.
The president will give an early indication of which course he’ll take if, after losing the midterms, he moves ahead with rewriting the nation’s immigration laws by executive order. This will provoke an unnecessary constitutional crisis, lead to a protracted legal battle, and poison the waters for incremental immigration reforms that could be adopted on a bipartisan basis.
That’s the Obama I expect to see, but he deserves the chance to show he’s matured as a leader and has the energy to govern.
Mr. Obama is not the only person who must decide how to proceed. Whatever path the president chooses, Republicans must settle on a course, too. They should understand that, while it is insane to assume good faith from Mr. Obama, they should not make score-settling with the administration their priority.
Voters want Republicans to restrain Mr. Obama from further bad actions and oversee, and in some cases investigate, misdeeds and gross mismanagement. Even more, however, they want Republicans to tackle the problems facing Americans, especially middle-class Americans. This means the GOP should start with measures to strengthen the economy and help job creation.
House Republicans have done much good work in this area, including the Jobs for America Act, which will remove regulatory barriers on companies seeking to expand jobs, and the Small Business Regulatory Relief Act, which allows small businesses to immediately deduct the cost of purchasing new equipment. If Republicans take control of the Senate, it will be imperative for them to move companion legislation soon. Not because it’s guaranteed that the president will sign their bills, but because action will demonstrate the GOP has a governing agenda.
Right out of the box, Republicans should move quickly on proposals where they and the administration agree, such as giving the president authority to negotiate trade deals that receive an up-or-down congressional vote, or on issues that have significant support from Democrats, like the Keystone XL pipeline.
The GOP also must offer substantive proposals to alter ObamaCare. The president will reject the full repeal that Republicans will send him. But he will be hard-pressed to sustain vetoes of bills that, for example, undermine ObamaCare but let people keep their health plan if they like their plan, raise the amount families can put into their Health Savings Account tax-free, and exempt more small businesses from the law.
Similarly, Mr. Obama will find it difficult to block all of the GOP’s efforts to restrain spending, undo dangerous cuts to the military budget, and add riders to appropriations bills that, for example, reinstate strict enforcement of legal limits on welfare payments. There’s a limit to how many times he can use his veto without making Democrats look like the Party of No.
Congressional Republicans cannot ignore how Mr. Obama conducts himself but must not let the timing or nature of his decision dictate theirs. He is becoming an increasingly diminished and, in some respects, pitiable figure.
Voters expect the GOP to act on an agenda. Republican candidates are making the case for constructive action in many Senate and House races including plans to reform health care, cut spending and achieve domestic energy independence. In office, they must not avoid dealing with hard issues out of fear their tough votes will be met with vetoes. Two years of that would reveal the president as an obstructionist, a critical step to winning the White House in 2016.
A version of this article appeared October 9, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline How Obama And A GOP Congress Can Get Along and online at WSJ.com.