The incoming congressional leadership and President Obama will finally meet tomorrow. Given the great challenges facing our nation, there is an intense focus on both the personalities and the substance of the meeting.
Most of the attention is focused on the relationship between the House Republicans and the president. This is not surprising, since the sweeping 63-seat pickup in the House put in place an entirely new leadership team headed by Speaker-to-be John Boehner. Frankly, the White House did not pay much attention to the Republicans when they were in the minority. There will be a great deal of getting to know one another over the next several months, a process that should have started in 2009.
But in the end, it may be that relations with the Senate are more important. First, Democrats will still be setting the agenda. The president is always the most important driver of policy, and Democrats still control both the White House and the Senate. If the president wishes to abandon the failed strategy of policy driven by his left-wing base, he will not only have to be able to work with House Republicans, he will have to get buy-in from Harry Reid and Senate Democrats. That would mean a real change for the White House practice of handing over legislative operations to the congressional leadership.
Even more interesting, the Senate Republicans may emerge as the pivotal leadership. As Senate Democrats look forward to the further threat of large losses in 2012, the rank-and-file may find themselves aligning as closely as possible with Republicans. Mitch McConnell may hold the title of “minority” leader, but have a majority of the votes. How will President Obama retool his relations with Senate Republicans?
Personalities are important to the process, but policy substance matters too. The American people vividly rejected the government-centric leftward lurch of the first two years of the Obama administration. When the congressional leadership leaves the meeting, what will they know about the president’s priorities for the next two years? Will he continue to press for more spending while promising to control deficits later, or will he pledge to begin immediately unwinding the growth of government? How much time will he spend on his domestic agenda — as he did for 15 months on health care — while leaving the economy on the back burner? Or will there be a laser focus on the economy and a new pro-growth playbook?
The lame-duck session of Congress will provide an excellent preview of the future. For the American people, avoiding a tax increase and improving economic growth are the top priorities. At the moment, however, the Democratic leadership offers only class warfare rhetoric on this front, and its action is devoted to its social agenda playbook: the DREAM Act, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and so forth. Will President Obama steer them to a more bipartisan process, a willingness to extend all the tax cuts, and rapid movement to settle the issue?
The stakes are high and the American public is eager to see the answer.