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Obama Enters New Chapter As GOP-Led House Arrives

A staff member fixes the presidential seal before President Obama gives a press conference in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., last month.
Jewel Samad
AFP/Getty Images
A staff member fixes the presidential seal before President Obama gives a press conference in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., last month.

When the 112th Congress convenes Wednesday, a new era in American politics will begin.

On his way back from Hawaii, President Obama said he wants to build on the progress made during the surprisingly productive lame-duck session before the holidays. But the message from congressional Republicans is: not so fast.

As the new Congress comes to town, the White House and Republicans are gearing up for new fights -- over spending and regulation -- and revisiting an old fight -- over health care.

Deadlock Better Than Deal-Making?

The two parties arrive back in Washington with two very different ideas of what the voters want. While the White House sees the lame-duck session as a model for what can be done when both sides work together, many Republicans say it's better to have deadlock than that kind of deal-making.

"No Tea Party or conservative Republican thinks the lame-duck offered a model of bipartisanship," says Republican strategist Ed Rogers. "That wing of the party tends to think this was a losing group giving the finger to the American people on the way out."

Rogers thinks bipartisan compromise on anything is a long way away. In the short term, Republican House leaders have promised to investigate the administration and cut a whopping $100 billion from the current budget. In addition, next Wednesday, they will vote to repeal the president's health care law.

That makes sense, says Rogers, even though much of the GOP agenda is unlikely to pass the Senate.

"Rather than compromise instantly, let's go ahead and define the priorities and the initiatives of the Republican majority in the House and the Republican Party generally," he says. "And, yes, some of that will be symbolic, given the realities of divided government. But it's not useless."

'The True Test For President Obama'

The big question is how the president will respond. Will he dive into the details of short-term fights on spending or does he try to vault above them by focusing on longer-term challenges like education infrastructure, deficit reduction or tax reform?

"That's really the drama around all of this," says Democratic strategist Geoff Garin. "Will the president go big as he seeks to define the agenda for 2011?"

Garin thinks Obama needs to talk about larger things that will make or break the country's future.

"The true test for President Obama in 2011 ... is his ability to establish his presidential leadership as something that is bigger, more visionary and more unifying for the country than the kinds of debates the Republicans want to offer," he says.

A visionary plan for economic growth and competitiveness, says Garin, could make the Republicans' bean-counting focus on spending cuts look small -- and their determination to repeal health care backward-looking.

A Change In Direction

And even though the health care law will be the subject of the opening battle this year, its passage actually marked the close of an important chapter in American political history, as Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged last March, when Obama signed the bill: "A man named Barack Obama put the final girder in the framework for a social network in this country."

The "final girder" in the great liberal project -- Biden knew what he was talking about. The health care bill will be the last great middle-class entitlement, says Jim Kessler of the policy think tank Third Way.

"With the passage of health care reform, the 80-year Democratic quest to build the best possible safety net is essentially over," he says. "And the Democratic Party has to shift from being a party primarily concerned with economic security and dividing up the pie to one that is primarily concerned with economic growth and expanding the pie.

"And the president has to lead that transition ... moving from security to growth. That is how you reclaim the center and appeal to ... the vast majority of people in this country who are concerned that America is slipping."

It seems this is the direction the president wants to go. In his Saturday radio address, he said he wants to do more than just keep the economic recovery going.

"It's time to make some serious decisions about how to keep our economy strong, growing and competitive in the long run," he said. "We have to look ahead -- not just to this year, but to the next 10 years, and the next 20 years. Where will new innovations come from? How will we attract the companies of tomorrow to set up shop and create jobs in our communities? What will it take to get those jobs? What will it take to out-compete other countries around the world?"

'Everyone's Going To Be Held Accountable'

The White House wants to have a debate this year about the future of American competitiveness -- not just the size of government. And the president's top adviser, David Axelrod, thinks they will have a better chance to win that argument this year than they did in last year's fight over health care and stimulus.

"It's going to be a little different in the next two years. We have a little bit more room to have dialogue with the American people about how we build this economy for the long run," he says. "And while we would have preferred to see Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the fact that there is a divided government means that we're going to share responsibility for governing, and everyone's going to be held accountable -- both parties."

And that's the White House game plan for the beginning of 2011 -- lay out a big vision in the State of the Union address and call the Republicans' bluff whenever possible. Chapter 2 of the Obama presidency begins Wednesday.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.