Obama Faces the Same Problems in 2011

The president had some victories at the end of 2010 but this year could be different.

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President Obama ended the year with a string of important victories on Capitol Hill, but that doesn't mean his success will continue into 2011. Actually, the next 12 months will be a time of competing political objectives for all sides, including the White House, and it's far from clear how much more compromise will be possible. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

One of the basic questions is whether Obama and the resurgent Republicans will continue to work together as they did in the just-completed lame-duck session of Congress. Obama managed to negotiate a massive economic package with GOP leaders that he signed into law in mid-December. It included an extension of the tax cuts first enacted under President George W. Bush, reduced payroll taxes, and an extension of unemployment benefits. Obama also persuaded Congress to repeal the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy, a change that will allow gays to serve openly in the armed forces. And he won Senate ratification of a new START arms-control agreement with Russia, one of the administration's top foreign policy goals. [See a roundup of editorial cartoons about 'don't ask, don't tell.]

Both Obama and Vice President Biden have underscored these actions as examples of how stalemate can be avoided and how there is still hope for bridging the partisan divide. "This has been a season of progress for the American people," Obama said at his year-end news conference on December 22. "If there's any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it's that we are not doomed to endless gridlock."

But the big issues of 2011 will be in many ways more difficult than the legislation that was generated over the past few weeks. One is whether the power brokers of Washington have the will and the gumption to get a grip on federal spending, especially entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Burgeoning deficits are acting as a drag on the nation's financial health, according to economists, and causing consternation among everyday Americans. In political terms, cutting taxes and extending unemployment assistance were easy, like dispensing candy to kids; doing what needs to be done on the deficit, such as reducing benefits or hiking taxes, will be bitter medicine that few politicians want to administer.

There are also lingering energy and environmental problems that will cause vexing divisions. And there is the issue of illegal immigration, which has stymied official Washington for many years. It was significant that the Senate, in one of its final acts of 2010, defeated the DREAM Act, an Obama priority that was designed to create a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. The president is pledging to raise the issue again in 2011, but the added strength of the GOP on Capitol Hill following the party's gains in the midterm elections will severely limit Obama's prospects for success.

The ideological divide remains wide, and this will create some very daunting political dilemmas. Obama, for example, faces a big choice on whether to become a "triangulator" by emulating President Bill Clinton, who drew ideas from the left and the right to find a "third way" and governed from the center. On the other hand, Obama wants to draw contrasts with conservatives to set the stage for his expected re-election bid in 2012 and satisfy his liberal base, which would run counter to the spirit of accommodation. [Read about the 2012 presidential election.]

Will the Republicans continue to cooperate with him? They have their own internal tug of war to deal with. On the one hand, they want to take at least partial responsibility for governing now that they control the House of Representatives and have gained strength in the Senate. But at the same time, they also feel a need to establish contrasts of their own to keep their momentum going, placate their conservative Tea Party base, and avoid giving the president too many victories going into 2012. [See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]