On the day after his party was routed in the midterm elections, President Obama sounded like a man eager to test the notion that the new Republican Congress could render him irrelevant for his final two years in office.
Rather than seeming chastened by an evening that saw the GOP pick up at least seven seats in the Senate and more than 10 in the House, Obama instead appeared to relish the idea that the new dynamic could either result in some legislative breakthroughs or, alternatively, provide him with a means to rehabilitate his tattered political reputation.
At a press conference at the White House, Obama expressed a willingness to work with the new GOP caucus, but at the same time challenged it, suggesting that if incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner are sincere about wanting to legislate, they'll need to demonstrate it to him. "I take them at their word they want to produce," Obama said Wednesday. "They're in the majority. They need to present their agenda."
The president's posture was a far cry from the tone of contrition that some critics sought, and betrayed a belief within the White House that if put to the governing test, Republicans on Capitol Hill might flunk it, torn apart by internal stresses. And even if the caucus does succeed in sending bills to the Obama's desk, they may be so incendiary that he could benefit politically by vetoing them.
"That's going to be the rub. The question is what kind of bills they send to the president," said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Sen. Harry Reid, the outgoing majority leader. "My view is that they're going to overreach."
In fact, with an eye toward 2016, both sides were trying to figure out whether there was a greater advantage politically in finding some common ground or in forcing confrontations that would allow each side to claim victory—but also perpetuate the kind of gridlock that the public resoundingly rejected on Election Day. For their part, congressional Republicans said they are aware that they must now figure out how to govern effectively alongside a president who could respond to their legislative advances with hostility.
McConnell was optimistic Wednesday, talking big, yet thinking small. He rattled off a list of presidents who had achieved major reforms in divided government, but shied away from any such lofty strategy. Instead, he noted that during the 114th Congress, Obama and the GOP can agree on several small items. The choice of whether to act on them, he added, is Obama's.
"Because of the strength of the veto pen, he could probably stay on the current course he's on, you know, just vetoing any effort we made to push back against what he's doing," McConnell told reporters at a victory-lap press conference in Louisville, Ky. "Or he could see if there's any areas of agreement."
Like Obama, Republicans will have to choose whether to take a pugilistic tack or play nice with the president. And while some in the party will most likely endorse the former, leadership-aligned members are already cautioning against that attitude.
"We'll have plenty of people say let's just fight him tooth and nail "¦ then we'll get the presidency and we'll get what we want. That's a mistake in my point of view," said Rep. Tom Cole, an ally of Boehner. "It's only an opportunity, it's not a mandate. It's a chance to perform and show we can do better than we have done, and I think if we don't take advantage of it we run the risk of getting fired in two years."
To show that they can govern, congressional Republicans have begun huddling to map out a modest agenda for the first few months of the new session, with several familiar items expected to resurface. They include measures picking apart provisions of the Affordable Care Act, such as a medical-device tax and a definition of a workweek as 30 hours, as well as bills meant to spur the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and promote trade.
Republican leaders may face the same pitfalls that have plagued them for years: Uber-conservative members and outside groups overshooting the realm of possibility. In the House, though, Chief Deputy GOP Whip Patrick McHenry said a larger majority gives them more room for error.
"The huge numbers we have in the House now helps us substantially get things done," he said. "The challenge will be to get those initiatives through a very divided U.S. Senate."
Passing bills out of the Senate could be difficult, since Republicans did not pick up a veto-proof majority. It will be even harder to move beyond small measures to more controversial goals McConnell cited Wednesday, such as rolling back the health care law's mandates that individuals buy insurance and that employers provide it, or deconstructing Obama's Wall Street reform bill.
Manley believes the GOP's ultimate plan is to force Obama to use that pen. "I think their goal is to try and get as much as they can out of the Senate and just let the president veto everything and try to run against that in 2016," he said.
On the other hand, by taking up controversial bills congressional Republicans may afford Obama an opportunity to do what became increasingly difficult for him during the election-year politics of 2014: Establish a clear contrast with the other side. Part of the president's problem stemmed from the choice of moderate Democrats to keep their distance, resulting in a party that seemed at times to have no clear agenda.
He'll have no such problem when hostile GOP legislation lands on his desk. Already, he reiterated Wednesday that any repeal of the Affordable Care Act or doing away with its individual mandate is a nonstarter. He was noncommittal about approving the Keystone pipeline, one of the first legislative issues that he's likely to face in the new year.
But there are risks in using the veto. Obama, by his own admission, has become the face of Washington gridlock—and Republicans are hoping he'll feel pressure to show results to the voting public, both to help boost Democratic prospects in 2016 and to help cement his legacy. Progressives are concerned. "The main worry is that this president will prioritize compromise for its own sake—no matter how bad compromise is—over big, bold ideas that will excite Americans," said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Green's fear is that Obama again will be tempted to cut a deal on entitlements to slash the deficit, but beyond that, he was disappointed that Obama seemed to have no ambitious economic plan going forward. He noted that, at the press conference, when asked about whether he would change his governing approach, Obama replied by saying that he was waiting to hear what Republicans would like to do. "I am open to working with them on the issues ... where they think there's going to be cooperation," the president said.
That angered Green. "What we saw today was more thinking small, more capitulation, and nothing to indicate there will a big, bold Obama agenda," he said.
But Obama signaled that he's going to put pressure on the new Congress in other ways. He did not back down from his pledge to issue an executive order on immigration that may provide deportation relief to millions, despite McConnell's warning Wednesday that it would virtually ensure no immigration bills pass Congress.
"I think the president choosing to do a lot of things unilaterally on immigration would be a big mistake," McConnell said. "It's like waving a red flag in front of a bull to say if you guys don't do what I want I'm going to do that on my own."
And he said he would ask lawmakers for a revised Authorization for Use of Military Force that directly covers the battle against Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria, which could both splinter the caucus and result in the GOP co-owning the fight with the White House. That could be an early test of whether Republican leaders mean what they're saying—that they're ready to handle the burden of governing.