Democrats think Obama learned some hard lessons in his first four years, including a realization that he must get deeply involved in the sometimes unpleasant business of crafting and negotiating legislation.
"The American people have made it pretty clear that they are sick of gridlock and fighting," said Jim Manley, a former Democratic Senate aide. Boehner and McConnell, he said, "have figured out that the tea party has done enormous damage to their brand, to say nothing about the economy, and that something has to change."
At the same time, Manley said "the president is going to have to play a more forceful role in the legislative process."
Obama signaled some of his second-term goals in a recent Des Moines Register interview. The fiscal cliff's economic threat is so severe, he said, that a congressional compromise is likely.
"It will probably be messy," the president said. "But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I've been offering to the Republicans." It calls for $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue.
"The second thing I'm confident we'll get done next year is immigration reform," he said. Perhaps. Or it could prove as difficult as President George W. Bush's bid to partly privatize Social Security right after his re-election.
In recent years, the very idea of bipartisan compromise has come under growing attack, as Americans got fed up with soaring deficits, longstanding threats to Medicare and other problems left unresolved by Congress' old practices. The anger gave birth to the tea party, which boosted candidates who vow not to compromise if they reach Washington.
Passion and ideology drive the tea party. Congressional leaders, historically, are realists. They keep their committee chairmanships and party leadership posts by constantly monitoring the moods and needs of their rank-and-file colleagues.
Some Washington veterans say Boehner is posturing when he claims that his party won as big a mandate as Obama did. When Republicans see that the no-new-taxes argument lost Tuesday, Boehner "is certain to come to the table to begin to deal," said Matt Bennett of the Democratic-leaning think tank Third Way.
"Boehner and McConnell surely know that they cannot continue to be pure obstructionists and that the economic consequences of going over the fiscal cliff would be extreme," Bennett said. But it's not clear they can control their caucuses, he said.
Indeed, the GOP is surely about to engage in some intense self-examination and infighting.
John Feehery, a former top House Republican aide, said Obama's re-election may give the White House less clout than Democratic insiders think.
"Republicans will feel they have just as big a mandate as the president," Feehery said. It's possible that Boehner and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada "will do the deals and put Obama on mute," he said.
Reid, at least for now, sounds upbeat and bipartisan.
"Democrats and Republicans must come together, and show that we are up to the challenge" of tackling big problems, Reid said after the election was called. "This is no time for excuses."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Charles Babington covers Congress and national politics for The Associated Press.
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