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With New Congress, Will Obama Work Differently?


The new Congress that begins next month will be controlled in both chambers by Republicans. That marks a significant reversal for President Obama. In a moment, we're going to hear how one congressman's loss raises questions about Democrats and race. First, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith examines whether the president's approach will change in the new year with the new Congress.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In January 2009, Democrats were riding high. With larger majorities in both the House and Senate than they had seen since the early 1990s. President Obama was riding high as well, even as the country faced a deep recession.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short.

KEITH: Obama confidently delivered his inaugural address to a record crowd with a decidedly Democratic Congress seated behind him.


OBAMA: What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

KEITH: But six years later, those political arguments not only still apply, they are raging. So just how did we get here? Lamar Alexander is a Republican senator from Tennessee.

SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER: When he came in with a wave, the thing to watch when you win big is to overreach, which is what he did.

KEITH: Alexander's idea of overreach - a stimulus package and financial industry regulations that both passed with just three Republican votes and the Affordable Care Act that didn't get a single GOP yes vote. Many Democrats, though, question the narrative that the President was able to get whatever he wanted in those first two years.

REPRESENTATIVE EARL BLUMENAUER: I mean, make no mistake, this government was divided from the moment Barack Obama took office.

KEITH: Earl Blumenauer is a Democratic congressman from Oregon. He says Obama's problem wasn't overreach but rather a lack of reach, that he tried too hard to compromise and never got any credit for it.

BLUMENAUER: There were people in the Democratic Party who thought he didn't go far enough and that thought he went too far. And he had unstinting opposition from Republicans.

KEITH: As viewed from the left, President Obama agreed to water down every major piece of legislation in those first two years to keep moderate Democrats on board and unsuccessfully trying to get Republican support. The great, new era of bipartisanship never arrived. Six years and two wave elections later, the big Democratic majorities in Congress are gone. Republicans are about to hold more House seats in the 114th Congress than they have since the 1920s. Oh, and they've taken back the majority in the Senate, as well. Will this change President Obama's approach to governing? Blumenauer, the Democrat, says he hopes Obama will be bold.

BLUMENAUER: I sincerely hope that now that the election is over and the next two years are all about the legacy of this administration, that we get to see a little more of the inner Obama.

KEITH: Republican Senator Alexander, in contrast, echoes many in his party when he says he hopes the president sees this divided government as an opportunity.

ALEXANDER: The important thing for him to remember is that he's got two years to left. They could be the most productive two years he has in terms of achieving a lasting consensus on things that make a difference.

KEITH: How will it turn out? So far, Obama has sent conflicting signals. First, the president took executive action on immigration - a direct thumb in the eye of congressional Republicans who begged him not to do it. Then, he endorsed a bipartisan budget deal that many congressional Democrats vehemently opposed. Ross Baker is a political science professor at Rutgers.

ROSS BAKER: It's a test of the adaptability and the political nimbleness of a president to endorse setbacks like this and not lose his footing.

KEITH: With his latest action to begin to normalize relations with Cuba, President Obama seems to be saying he has no intention of losing his footing in the final two years, even with a Republican-controlled Congress. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.