Post-Election Washington Reality

Barack Obama

Barack Obama (Photo credit: jamesomalley)

Celebrations among Democrats over President Obama’s decisive re-election and soul-searching among Republicans over a Romney defeat and losses in key Senate races soon will give way to questions about where the country is headed on major policy questions given a capital – and a nation – that remain deeply divided.

Obama and Democrats will be quick to claim a mandate for their idea of a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines higher taxes on the wealthy with spending restraint. While House Speaker John Boehner suggested he would be a “willing partner” in addressing America’s economic problems, he also made it clear that he believes last night’s vote affirming a GOP House majority means “there’s no mandate for raising tax rates.” Boehner plans to speak later today in Washington about the pending fiscal cliff.

So, will Tuesday’s results spur momentum for a Bowles-Simpson-style “grand bargain” to address deficits and debt? David Kendall, senior fellow at centrist think tank Third Way  argues that the message to both parties is “go back to the bargaining table” and “finish the deal” that Obama and Boehner attempted to forge during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis. The fact that GOP running mate Paul Ryan will return to the House and most likely continue to run the Budget Committee (or take over Ways and Means) will certainly add to the drama.

Yet, as Jonathan Cohn points out, the balance of power in upcoming budget negotiations has shifted toward President Obama – and not just because he can claim a new mandate from the election. Unlike the summer of 2011, this time around Obama “can hold out in the debate over the sequester and Bush tax cuts, because the default action – doing nothing – is far worse for Republicans than it is for him.”

Mitt Romney told his supporters that with serious fiscal challenges ahead, “we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing.  Our leaders have to reach across the aisle and do the people’s work.” Yet William Galston of the Brookings Institution may have captured the prevailing mood in Washington better when he suggested the tough campaign “did little to heal the divisions that have defined politics” over the past decade.