Opinion

Election season is almost over. Now the fun begins.

With nothing left to lose, Obama can take the fight to a GOP-controlled Congress

Now that the 2014 election season is coming to an end, the excitement is about to begin.

For going on a year now, the president and Congress have been circling each other as they fob off their responsibility to govern the country. But if the GOP wins the Senate as expected, resulting in fewer vulnerable Democrats whining to the president about hard votes, Obama and Congress can finally have some of the fights they have been itching for.

Near the top of that list will be immigration reform. Obama says it is "suicide" for the GOP to avoid the issue. It is hard to take his concern for his opponents seriously. In the absence of congressional action, Obama promised activists he would take charge over the summer. He reneged when Dems complained that it would be suicide for them. But after Tuesday, the 2016 presidential race will come into focus, and it is much more favorable to Democrats. Obama's initiatives will no longer be a serious drag on Democratic candidates. He can fight for immigration and watch as GOP populists tear into each other, while presidential hopefuls like Jeb Bush fumble the issue going into 2016.

The president and the GOP will likely fight over energy policy, both because Obama wants at least some — even symbolic — action on climate change, and the GOP may decide to make good on promises to combat any effort for more aggressive regulation of greenhouse gases through the Environmental Protection Agency. On the other side, Secretary of State John Kerry seems anxious to see a decision come down on the Keystone pipeline, at least for the sake of preserving North American relations.

There are likely to be major foreign policy debates as well. This summer, Congress completely abdicated its role in authorizing warfare, letting Obama order airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, along with the distribution of weapons and materiel to Syrian rebels. That policy is already causing division in the White House itself. And it is causing embarrassment out in the field, where stumblebum allies end up handing over U.S. weapons to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The deadline for negotiations with Iran over that nation's suspected nuclear weapons program comes on Nov. 24. With the Obama administration openly trashing Israel's government, and anxious for some kind of policy achievement in the Middle East, Republicans paint Obama as a betrayer of a great ally. They will imply that he is doing so in a vain attempt to pivot toward Iran and away from the Jewish state. See Ted Cruz's op-ed in Time for a preview of how this could play out.

There will not be a vote to repeal every word and provision of ObamaCare. Too many of its provisions are popular. But there will be a seemingly small-ball fight over the medical device tax, a revenue generator attached to ObamaCare. This provision doesn't seem to have the support of Obama's most likely successor and there is no real constituency for it. My prediction is that Obama lets this one go. His signature piece of legislation no longer needs the inflated expectations of revenue generation to hide the financial cost. And besides, with truly divided government, the one thing both parties are good at doing is promising to spend, while promising not to collect enough revenue to pay for it.

But the most intriguing potential fight will come if either Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 81) or Justice Stephen Breyer (76) decide that they don't want to risk Democrats giving up the White House in 2016. It is precisely here that the logic of our timid democratic politics suddenly reverses. When major policy authority is given up by Congress or the president and is de facto thrown to the court, judicial nominations become almost as grave for the future of the nation as palace intrigue once was to the royal houses of Europe. While few expect Obama and the Democrats to fight for someone as progressive as Ginsburg, it would be seen as a total legacy-damaging failure in the party if Obama settled for a swing-voting moderate.

That the election year has been a bit of a snooze is not in doubt. Obama's deference to the electoral hopes of 2014 Democratic candidates has made the White House somnambulant. Why fight for reforms against your own side?

But what may be exciting is a lame-duck Obama trying to salvage the last two years of his presidency, against a Senate he can fight in the open.

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