Trouble Ahead for Obama's Presidency

The first phase of his time in office was tough but part II could be worse.

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Video: Election Results Mean Trouble for Obama

Barack Obama thought the first phase of his presidency was tough, with one crisis after another rolling over the White House for two years. But Part II could be worse.

At least Obama had a friendly Democratic Congress. But the midterm elections gave control of the House to the Republicans and narrowed the Democrats' majority in the Senate to a razor-thin margin, so getting major legislation through will be much tougher, if not impossible. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.] Obama campaigned aggressively for Democrats across the country, and the voters largely rebuffed him. His agenda is in deep trouble, and he has lost much of his support among the American people. Only about 45 percent of voters approve of the job he is doing, and his disapproval rate exceeds 50 percent, according to the latest polls.

So what's the president to do? The day after the election, Obama sadly admitted that he had taken a "shellacking" and told reporters that he will reach out to Republicans to find bipartisan compromise. He invited the leadership of the House and Senate to meetings at the White House on November 18. His aim: to figure out what's possible, especially in the area of job creation. Obama said Americans are "deeply frustrated with the pace of our economic recovery and the opportunities that they hope for their children and their grandchildren. Clearly, too many Americans haven't felt that progress yet, and they told us that yesterday. And, as president, I take responsibility for that." [See photos from the campaign trail.]

He didn't send the best signal when, just before the election, he called the Republicans his "enemies," a demonizing comment that he quickly withdrew, saying he probably should have called them "opponents" instead. But GOP leaders were offended and fired back that he was being divisive and violating his own calls for comity. White House officials, however, pointed out that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has recently said that the GOP's main mission is to ensure that Obama is a one-term president. And, fresh from their victory, the Republicans said that, despite Obama's calls for compromise, they would confront him in a variety of ways, such as by trying to repeal the healthcare law passed earlier this year and by pushing hard for lower taxes and less government.

Still, even in his weakened political condition, Obama has some cards to play. As summarized by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, the president has the biggest "megaphone" in American politics, and he will continue to set the agenda for Congress no matter how much the Republicans squawk.

Indications from the White House are that Obama will scale back. As he said at his news conference this week, he thinks he can get compromises on a few issues in the next year, such as cutting the deficit, encouraging the use of renewable energy to reduce reliance on oil, strengthening education, and rebuilding the nation's infrastructure. But big-ticket items are probably beyond reach. Democratic strategists concede that there is little chance, for example, to win congressional approval for a massive energy bill to reduce climate change.

Instead, Obama is expected to use executive orders and impose more regulations to, for example, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and alter union rules, circumventing Congress. This will of course cause more hard feelings with resurgent conservatives, but that may be a price that Obama will have to pay to keep his liberal base relatively pacified. Obama also is expected to say no to Republicans who want to roll back what they have called Obamacare. More immediately, Obama still favors extending President George W. Bush's tax cuts to only the middle class, while Republicans want to extend those cuts for everyone. This will be a flash point in the lame-duck session of Congress later this month.

All in all, Washington is entering a period of reduced expectations as everyone jockeys for position for the 2012 elections, when the presidency will be at stake. The Republicans are on a roll in several key states that Obama won in 2008—including Ohio, Florida, Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina. And there is now a drumbeat from within the Democratic Party for Obama to shake up his White House team to find ways to reconnect to everyday America. In short, as Part II begins, Obama starts off in serious political trouble.