WASHINGTON -- Is the government's gridlock about to be dislodged? Imagine the capital as a giant set of pulleys and levers, operating at cross purposes. In the end, the forces tugging President Obama and Republican leaders apart may be more powerful than the ones pushing them together.
Obama and the incoming Senate leader, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, said nice things about cooperating in the election's aftermath. You could call this predictable posturing, with the goal not necessarily to accomplish results but to ensure that voters blame the other side when gridlock as usual ensues.
Certainly, there was an element of defensive positioning. Obama and McConnell don't particularly like or even much respect each other. But they find themselves now with their fortunes strangely aligned -- and with the president's interests not necessarily in tune with those of his Democratic congressional counterparts.
Obama has two years remaining in a presidency that has fallen far short of its shimmering promise. McConnell has two years -- likely more, given the surprisingly comfortable size of his new majority -- to demonstrate that Republicans can do more than simply obstruct. Neither man has future ambitions; each has the job he wanted. History will punish the president for two more years of bickering and inaction. Voters will punish Republicans. The incentives for cooperation are obvious -- as are the president's incentives to forge deals with Republicans at the ideological expense of liberal Democrats.
Trade offers the most obvious, and promising, example. Last January, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid derailed the administration's plan to push trade deals with Europe and Asia when he announced that he opposed granting the president fast-track negotiating authority. Goodbye, Harry. Hello, Mitch. The happiest Democrat in Washington these days should be U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman.
But Obama could -- and in some cases should -- throw congressional Democrats under the bus. Consider the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian tar-sands oil to refineries in the United States.
The president believes, correctly, that the pipeline's importance -- either as a job-creating, energy-producing measure or as a dire threat to the environment -- has been greatly exaggerated. Democrats for whom opposition to Keystone has become an odd article of faith shouldn't count on Obama to veto a measure allowing construction to proceed.
Other areas of potential cooperation are more troubling, including the impending demise of the medical device tax -- not an Obama priority but an inevitability to which he will likely accede.
The tax was part of the Affordable Care Act under the sensible theory that all beneficiaries of the system -- hospitals, insurers, physicians -- should ante up. But medical device manufacturers have effectively squealed about the tax, and won the backing of numerous Democrats (34 voted for repeal, including super-progressive Elizabeth Warren). Facing a potential veto override, Obama should instead concentrate on protecting the cost-saving Independent Payment Advisory Board, another Obamacare element in the Republican crosshairs.
These may sound like a lot of areas of potential progress, or what passes for progress, and I haven't yet mentioned corporate tax reform -- another, albeit devilishly complicated, area of potential bargain-crafting. So why my glum assessment that the dynamics of division will outweigh those of cooperation?
One word: immigration. Here the president has Houdini'd himself into a box, but without the magician's escape artistry.
Fed up with Republican inaction, Obama rashly vowed executive action before the election -- only to delay after protests from endangered Senate Democrats.
That move gained nothing; now the promise has come due. So Obama faced an unpalatable choice. He could further enrage Hispanics and other immigration reform advocates by failing to reaffirm his vow of unilateral action. Or he could infuriate Republicans, "waving a red flag in front of a bull," as McConnell put it the other day.
Obama announced his plan to pursue the latter course, understandably given the human toll of delay. But that move would be the likely death knell for cooperation on all but the most obvious and small-bore matters. To continue the bull metaphor, the Republican leaders, both McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, are trying to stay atop their already unruly caucuses.
An executive order on immigration would let Republicans blame continued gridlock on Obama's provocation. The White House's effort to put the onus on Republicans -- the president would hold off if the lame-duck session produced progress -- is laughable, given the Democrats' electoral drubbing.
The political timing is exquisitely terrible. So are the consequences for those who yearn to see Washington start to work again.