President Obama's second term may be anticlimactic. His slate is already full of to-dos and none of them are easy. He must oversee the regulations that will implement health care reform. He'll continue to manage the draw-down in Afghanistan, the "pivot" to Asia, the "reset" with Russia, and the struggle with Iran.
He can do most of these without Republicans. But to avoid being mired in the quagmire that helped produce Tuesday's status quo election, he'll need to stimulate the economy, reduce the deficit, reform entitlements and the tax code, and begin to tackle climate change. All will require a somewhat more compliant Republican Party.
Whether Republicans will make more than rhetorical flourishes toward Middle C depends on the demographics of the House of Representatives and on what lessons the party decides to learn from the election. Consider demography: Republicans have been so successful in gerrymandering districts in large states, giving them an outsize share of the House seats in states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia and Michigan, which are much more bipartisan that their House split would indicate. As The New York Times' Binyamin Appelbaum notes, Democrats won 10 of 27 House seats in Florida, less than a third of the races in Pennsylvania, a third in Virginia, a fourth of 16 in Ohio and 5 of 14 in Michigan. This makes the House much more conservative than the population at large. (Arguably, the Senate is slightly more liberal than the population.)
If current projections hold, though, Democrats will reduce the GOP's margin in the House by about a fifth. Enough of those districts are marginal, which means that the new Democrats will exert an upward pressure on the president to "bargain." Republicans, too, face slightly less of a Tea Party cross-pressure to hold out; overall, the House is slightly more amenable to, well, something.
In January of 2013, the Bush tax cuts expire. House Speaker John Boehner has said that he is open to raising revenue as part of a grand bargain, but he is not open to raising tax rates. That is effectively the same position the House GOP took before the election. The only way to raise revenue (they say) is by tax reform that broadens the base. This is a non-starter; arguably, it is part and parcel of the plan that Americans rejected in the election.
Here's betting that Obama doesn't begin to really negotiate until the next Congress is seated. That means NO agreement about the Bush tax cuts until after the new year, and it probably means allowing the dreaded sequester cutbacks to start the budget process next year. Obama's ability to force Republicans to compromise will be at an apex when taxpayers are forced to reckon with an across-the-board increase in income tax rates and Republicans have to stomach that, as well as huge defense cuts. Obama might appear to negotiate now, because the stock market seems ready to punish him if there is no forward movement towards a deal.
Republicans have further incentives to compromise. They're nakedly political. If they compromise on immigration reform, they'll take the issue off the table for future elections. If they help put in place a "grand bargain" that begins to reduce the deficit, their candidate in 2016 will not be saddled with the specter of massive discretionary spending cuts and won't have to propose Draconian entitlement reductions either.
One hitch: Because of the way the House is gerrymandered, the demography of the 2014 midterm elections might be so different than the 2012 and projected 2016 demographics that House Republicans may find that they could swing back some seats simply by doing nothing. But as Speaker Boehner surely knows, this does nothing for his legacy. It helps his party not one bit. And it sets the stage for a shellacking in 2016.
My guess is that Obama will be able to govern a lot more effectively now than it might seem. Yes, the status quo post bellum seems familiar. But it's not the same at all.
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