White House ponders, What now?

WHITE HOUSE PONDERS, WHAT NOW?…. Governing hasn’t exactly been easy for the Obama administration over the last two years. The White House benefited from a like-minded U.S. House, but Senate obstructionism reached a point unseen in American history. That, combined with pressing, inherited crises — an economic catastrophe, two wars, a jobs crisis, a massive deficit, a housing crisis, a climate crisis, a dysfunctional health care system, a broken energy framework — and an angry, impatient electorate, made 2009 and 2010 as challenging for this president as any two-year stretch in modern American history.

And it’s about to get considerably more difficult. A Senate that struggled to function with a 59-member majority will now have a 53-47 split. The incoming GOP House majority will make the lower chamber as conservative as it’s been in generations. The national and international challenges in desperate need of attention haven’t gone away, and the president’s public standing has faltered.

What on earth will President Obama and his team do now?

Anne Kornblut reports today that a wide variety of leading White House aides have been meeting this week to “figure out what went so wrong and what to do about it.” The officials have “determined that the situation they face is serious and will take significant adjustments to reverse.”

The advisers are deeply concerned about winning back political independents, who supported Obama two years ago by an eight-point margin but backed Republicans for the House this year by 19 points. To do so, they think he must forge partnerships with Republicans on key issues and make noticeable progress on his oft-repeated campaign pledge to change the ways of Washington.

Even more important, senior administration officials said, Obama will need to oversee tangible improvements in the economy. They cannot just keep arguing, as Democrats did during the recent campaign, that things would have been worse if not for administration policies.

It appears that a detailed plan for the political future is still coming together, but Kornblut’s report, which is well worth reading in full, noted that officials are prioritizing “re-energizing” his “core constituencies,” which strikes me as a very good idea. It also seems unlikely that they’ll make major, “sudden” changes in their approach to governing, especially since they don’t perceive the midterm results as being “as bleak a harbinger as some Democrats fear.” I’m also glad to see officials are prioritizing “tangible improvements in the economy,” since Republicans aren’t.

One senior official “said the key is to neither overreact nor underreact to the midterms but to accurately pinpoint the areas that were truly problematic for the president and try to act on them.”

The sticking point, at least for me, continues to be over what the White House expects from Republicans, who just happen to be intent on destroying Obama’s presidency. The piece noted that White House officials intend to “gauge whether they can forge an alliance with any top Republicans,” which strikes me as practically impossible. A senior official said the White House is “hopeful but not naive” about constructive work with the rival party.

If I’m in the West Wing, I’m planning for the worst — game out the scenario in which Republicans push for a government shutdown, refuse to fund much of anything, make every effort to gut health care and education, and plan accordingly.

Because all available evidence suggests GOP leaders and their nihilistic rank and file have no interest in governing. None. If Plan A is exploring the possibility of working in good faith with Republicans towards actual policymaking, fine. Give it a try. But keeping Plan B handy at or near the top of the pile would probably the responsible, realistic thing to do.

Put it this way: the White House should imagine Republicans being as reckless, irresponsible, ignorant, ill-tempered and child-like as humanly possible — and then expect that to happen, because it probably will.