Don't be naive, Mr. President: How the White House should respond to last night's disaster

The president may offer some nice words about working with the GOP today. Here's how to tell if he believes it

Published November 5, 2014 5:35PM (EST)

Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell                         (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell (AP/Charles Dharapak)

President Obama is due to give a press conference later this afternoon discussing last night's nightmarish results for the Democrats across the board. Right now, pundits are largely focused on the superficialities of nomenclature. What term will he use to describe the showing? President G. W. Bush described the 2006 Democratic wave as a "thumpin'"; Obama went with "shellacking" in 2010. What will 2014 be called? A "whooping" or a "beating" or who knows. The most apt term, for what it's worth, would be "ass-kicking." Is there any doubt that "the ass-kicking of 2014" has the appropriate air of history to it? And yet this may be a little too PG-13 for the nightly news.

Name games are fun. But once that's settled, there will be matters of great importance for the president to discuss. Mainly: How willing is he to get duped by these Republicans?

We'll hear the sort of pablum about making an effort to "work with congressional Republicans," a phrase I just laughed out loud typing. The resounding message that the GOP got from old people across the country last night is not that it wants the GOP to "work with" Obama. If Republican voters had any interest in seeing their congressional representatives find common cause with this president, they would have punished them at the polls by now.

They haven't. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have bet that working against President Obama's "agenda" for the sake of working against it is the proper way to build Republican majorities in Congress, and it's gone swimmingly for them. These Republicans will see no need to change course now in order to "show that they can govern." Showing that they can be oppositional, and deflect all blame for the resulting dysfunction onto the presidency, has won them results.

The first six months of next year will be the president and the Republican Congress pretending to consider certain agenda items -- slashing corporate taxes, cutting free trade agreements, or something similarly Serious-sounding to wealthy Beltway pundits -- and then letting their efforts fall apart as the same old oppositional incentives reassert themselves and the presidential race gets underway.

Obama can emit whatever hazy friendship murmurs about 2015 that he wants, for the cameras. But how much of it does he buy into? We should be able to gauge it this afternoon and in the coming weeks by the administration's posture on the lame duck session.

If the administration sees the outstretched arms of Mitch McConnell as something more than the mirage that it is, then it's going to delay, or go small, on executive action for immigration. And it won't try to push through too many confirmations before the end of the year. It will be all about not hurting Republicans' fee-fees ahead of the next Congress' brief legislative window.

But if the administration has its head screwed on right, the rest of the year will be active. President Obama and his aides will push Harry Reid to confirm whomever they need confirmed for the next two years: an attorney general replacement, a surgeon general (if anyone still cares about that), judges, ambassadors, undersecretaries of everything for every policy. They will try to get it all done before the holidays. And President Obama will keep his promise to immigration activists and take the extraordinary executive action on deportations that's expected.

President Obama has to get done whatever else he can get done with his authority and the last days of a Democratic Senate, and he's going to have to give up on the hope of adding anything else to his legislative legacy as president. Leave it to Hillary Clinton and the seven dwarves running against her to determine the future of the Democratic legislative agenda. Because the next two years are going to be a continuation of the Dark Ages in lawmaking, and there's not much use in pretending otherwise.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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