What happens if Obama loses the House?

BBC News | By Mark Mardell

The predictions are pretty clear: the Democrats will lose control of the House and perhaps the Senate.

Those of a cynical disposition may wonder how much difference it will make. President Barack Obama has had enough trouble getting big policies like healthcare and financial reform past his unruly party and a Senate determined to obstruct.

But it will be even more awkward if the Republicans are in charge, and what the French call “cohabitation” may end with the reluctant partners hardly on speaking terms.

It is hardly new in American politics to have a president of one party and the House ruled by his opponents. It has been the case for 38 of the past 60 years. While there’s plenty of historical precedent, many in Washington point to Bill Clinton as the president for Mr Obama to emulate.

“The lesson from the Clinton mid-terms is that both parties will have come to the table. The stand-off is not sustainable,” says Kiki McLean, one of Mr Clinton’s senior aides.

“I believe this is imperative for the Democratic president and the leadership of Congress to work on moving forward. There has come a level of hyper-partisanship in this country that is really intolerable, and it is really an impediment to progress for us.”

This is perhaps an important aspiration. But it may be checked by reality. As awkward as the current Congress is for the president, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The election is likely to return plenty of Republican members who are from, or at least are backed by, the Tea Party movement. They will want to halt healthcare reform, deal with the deficit and generally shake things up. They do not want government as normal.

Former Republican Congressman Tom Davis says: “The Tea Party brings an element into the Republican coalition, and it makes compromise a little harder. These folks are pretty hard-edged about their views and are in no mood to compromise with the president.”

Mr Davis adds that three senior Republicans who tried a type of bipartisan co-operation in the past year were sacked by their party members for reaching across the aisle.

“I think that has had a chilling effect on some Republicans and their ability to at least come easily to work across the table with President Obama,” Mr Davis says.

There’s no doubt that new Republicans will try to get the Bush tax cuts continued, destroy Obama’s healthcare reforms by taking the money away from them and block any moves towards a carbon tax.

But Matt Kibbe, the chief executive of Freedomworks, says Republicans must have a positive agenda.

“The number one applause line I get addressing rallies of activists is that 3 November is more important than 2 November. It is not enough to throw the bums out and elect new political leaders. We have to get serious about new legislation and fixing problems,” he says.

But having a positive agenda is one thing, compromise is another. This sets the stage for a blame game, an almost inevitable competing narrative – where each side portrays the others as the wreckers standing in the way of what ordinary Americans want and need.

Mr Clinton’s presidency is not the only historical model, says long-time Washington insider and economist Mark Bloomfield.

“The other model is the Harry Truman model, which is to stick to your guns and Congress be damned – and run against the Congress in 2012, which is what Obama could do. He could say, ‘I tried to fix the economy, I tried to give people healthcare, but the Congress refuses to deal with me. It’s a do-nothing Congress,'” Mr Bloomfield says.

But he warns that a failure to reach agreement could be catastrophic.

The new members of Congress, primarily from the Republican Party, may not be willing to compromise. They will not necessary follow the leaders of the Republican Party, so predictably you will have gridlock – but you could also have chaos.

“Traditional politicians go along and increase the debt limit. These Tea Party people may not vote to increase the debt limit, which means the US government cannot raise money. So the government defaults. This is very, very serious, and this could come in the first quarter of next year,” Mr Bloomfield says.

Such chaos would sharpen the blame game. For all the current emphasis on Mr Clinton as a compromiser, he ended up with the Republicans refusing to play ball and closing down the government. But if President Obama is feeling a little depressed next week as he contemplates which presidential predecessor to follow, he might reflect that both Mr Clinton and Mr Truman were re-elected.