WASHINGTON — When President Obama swept into office six years ago, Democrats had firm control of almost every lever of government and a broad mandate for change.
But as Obama monitored election results from the White House on Tuesday night, he confronted a painful message from voters: They wanted a different kind of change.
Republicans won control of the Senate and expanded their grip on the House, likely forcing him to shuffle his staff and recalibrate his attempts to work with Republicans. Obama’s window of power is also now closing, with the political class in Washington already turning its attention to 2016 and who will replace him.
“It’s critically important for the president to recognize the political terrain has changed dramatically,” said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist. “If Republicans have control of the House and the Senate, it’s a whole new ballgame. He’s going to need to make serious adjustments in the ways he deals with the opposition.”
The new dynamics set up a potentially vicious battle between Congress and the White House, with Obama likely relying on his pen far more, both to veto legislation he does not like and to write executive orders that he does.
A Republican majority in the Senate will make it even harder for him to win confirmations, particularly if there is a Supreme Court vacancy. It will complicate efforts at far-reaching legislation, such as immigration or tax policy reform.
And after an election in which he was avoided on the campaign trail by many members of his own party, it may be more difficult for him to galvanize Democratic support.
Obama, who is expected to have a press conference on Wednesday to discuss the results, is planning to issue an executive order on immigration reform before the end of the year.
Working with Republicans — something that has happened infrequently in the past six years — is going to get even more difficult. Obama has little personal or political rapport with Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who won his bid for reelection and is expected to become the new majority leader.
During six years in office, Obama has met individually with McConnell only twice, according to a review of White House visitor logs, pool reports, and press releases. In December 2010, during a White House ceremony, Obama referred to McConnell as “Mike.”
“Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really?” Obama joked last year at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”
McConnell has never made much of an effort to be chummy with Obama, either. He has tried to defeat almost every Obama proposal, and in 2010 he said his top goal was making sure that Obama was a one-term president.
Obama’s best hope may be that Republicans will recalibrate their strategy for the 2016 elections, in which they have to appeal to a broader national electorate and become more amenable to cutting deals, particularly on immigration.
But analysts view that possibility as remote.
“A horrible situation on Capitol Hill is going to only get worse,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. “The idea that there’s going to be room for compromise is a nice idea, but it’s not likely. Republicans are going to feel emboldened and they’re going to push the president much further than he wants to go on domestic policy.”
Most presidents see their party struggle to win during midterm elections. President George W. Bush called the 2006 midterm losses — when Republicans lost 30 House seats and six Senate seats and control of both chambers — a “thumping.” Obama called the 2010 midterm losses — when Democrats lost six Senate seats and 63 House seats and control of the latter chamber — a “shellacking.”
Obama’s struggle in 2014 has been particularly notable. Republicans blistered his record and few Democrats campaigned with him. The elections turned into a referendum on Obama’s leadership, with no one really leading the effort to defend him.
Core Democratic constituencies appeared unmotivated in the 2014 elections.
“I am not on the ballot this fall,” Obama said last month. “Michelle’s pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.”
Obama is likely to do what many presidents do in their last two years: turn to the foreign stage, where they may have more leverage to effect change. But even there, Obama faces difficult challenges. Relations are thorny with both historic foes such as Russia as well as historic allies such as Israel; conflict in Iraq and Syria has become a mess; and Ebola continues to have a hold in parts of West Africa.
One possible breakthrough could come with a nuclear agreement with Iran, but Republicans will likely be skeptical.
“There’s things there he can do, and there’s the potential for progress,” Devine said. “But the most important thing he can do right now is that he understands he needs to take a different tack.”