Three weeks ago, resurgent Republicans won control of one house of Congress, beginning — officially, at least — in January. But last week in Washington, it felt as if they had already taken control of all of Capitol Hill.
They pushed the White House and fragmented Senate Democrats toward a "compromise" on extending high-income tax cuts that looks an awful lot like a Republican victory, extending for at least a couple of years low tax rates for the embattled class that earns more than $250,000 a year.
They made clear they will hold up approval of President Obama's treaty to cut the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, partly because of "tea party" objections, even though the GOP's traditional foreign policy elite strongly favors the pact.
They dug in their heels against repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexual soldiers, stopping Obama from keeping a promise to his supporters.
And they reveled in the discomfort of centrist Democrats as the dwindling majority caucus reelected Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lead it in its coming minority years.
In this lame-duck session, Republicans have all the advantages: the momentum of a majority and the uncomplicated "hell no" message of a minority. And they are staying on that message with steely discipline so far. On Thursday, summing up the GOP program for the next Congress, Speaker-to-be John A. Boehner boiled it down to a personal best of four words. "More jobs, less spending," he said. "It's that simple."
It won't be that simple, of course, once Boehner and his caucus actually have to produce a budget and pass spending bills that will actually produce jobs. But Boehner's crisp summation reflected one of the main reasons Republicans won the election; and one of the main reasons they are now winning the debate over tax cuts is that they have connected them to job creation, the top concern of voters. Most voters don't rank cutting taxes or the deficit as their top priorities, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said last week, but they believe the GOP will be better able to create jobs, in part because the Obama administration didn't issue a clear enough message about how it would help the economy do better.
So where was Barack Obama while the Republicans swaggered around Capitol Hill last week? The president and his aides were hunkered down in the White House, holding strategy sessions and working to firm up their own Democratic caucus for the immediate battles of the lame-duck session. They say they don't feel hurried; any new directions will get a "slow rollout" in December and a full rollout in January, when the president delivers his State of the Union address and proposes a new budget. Still, by the end of the week, when the new Republican confidence had made itself fully evident, the White House sent Vice President Joe Biden out for a flurry of television and newspaper interviews, both to argue for the nuclear arms treaty and to calm the jangled nerves of the Democratic Party.
"We made mistakes," Biden admitted on MSNBC on Friday with, as usual, more bluntness than his boss. "We could have done things differently. We could have prioritized things in a different way. And what we have to do now is learn from those lessons."
Meanwhile, Obama is getting lots of free advice from Clinton administration veterans who think they know how to help a Democratic president recover from a midterm election shellacking, because they did it for Clinton after 1994.
Much of the advice is predictable: take your time, focus relentlessly on the economy; offer to cooperate with Republicans where you can, but draw clear lines when you cannot; and admit your own mistakes.
"I don't think there is any reason you can't reset and start over," said Greenberg, who was Clinton's pollster in 1994. "Voters are pretty forgiving of leaders who say they've learned something … and there is still a majority who want Obama to succeed."
But the Clintonites also offer some specific proposals, all of which, they say, are already being discussed inside the White House.
The core of Obama's message, Greenberg said, should be a strategy to make the United States more competitive in the global economy. "People are hungry for it," he said.
One specific action Obama can take to make that strategy real is to fund an "infrastructure bank," an idea the president has long endorsed but never put into practice, said another former Clinton aide, William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution. "There's not going to be another big stimulus bill, but this is something that can be done with a modest amount of money, reallocated from other programs," Galston said.
Other steps can also be taken by executive action, without waiting for a divided Congress to pass legislation, noted John Podesta, Clinton's last chief of staff. Obama can lay out a "competitiveness strategy" and coordinate existing federal programs to support it, he said. Obama's first two years were dominated by ambitious legislation, including healthcare reform, he said. "Now it's in the doing. It's in the execution."
Even the current debate over extending high-income tax cuts could be an opportunity for innovation, argued Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). Warner has proposed tying the tax debate directly to job creation — by ending the tax cut for taxpayers earning more than $250,000 but using the new revenue for investment credits or other measures to help businesses.
During these final weeks of the year, there will be no shortage of ideas Obama can draw on as he tries to frame a new agenda around job creation — now that his initial approach, the $787-billion stimulus plan passed in 2009, has run out of gas. But as Republicans made clear this week, it may be an uphill battle, even while the Democrats are still nominally in control.