How will Obama get things done?

October 15, 2010, 11:00 AM UTC

By Tory Newmyer

I’m not going to pretend to predict the final outcome of the November elections. But I can tell you this: A lot of Democrats are going to be replaced by Republicans. And that means President Obama is going to have to figure out some creative ways to get things done.

Insiders are already digging out their old Clinton administration playbooks to figure it all out. Here’s how it could work for Obama. After the 1994 midterms swept Democrats from power, Clinton scrambled to the political middle and found common ground with Republicans. The approach helped the President engineer welfare reform and a balanced-budget agreement. Or Obama could look to Clinton’s second term after the impeachment saga just about killed any chance of Congress working with him. Clinton turned to executive orders and the regulatory process to advance his agenda.

Strategists close to the White House expect to see some of both. “Even if he has simple majorities, he’s going to face very similar decisions,” said Neera Tanden, a top policy aide to both Clinton and Obama now at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. That will mean overtures to the GOP on deficit reduction and trade deals, and possibly on pared-back immigration and energy reforms. But the administration will also have plenty of room to end-run Congress to deliver some wins to the party’s liberal base.

Two of the White House’s signature legislative achievements so far, in health care and financial regulation, still need to be implemented. Since both laws left a huge number of decisions about their final shape to regulators, rulemaking will continue to figure prominently in the broader policy debate.

The administration will also look at what it can accomplish by executive fiat if lawmakers won’t go along. With Obama’s push for a comprehensive climate-change package stalled on the Hill, the Environmental Protection Agency is gearing up to cap carbon emissions under authority it claims from the Clean Air Act.

The card-check union-organizing initiative that labor cites as its top legislative priority was a nonstarter even with wide Democratic margins. But business groups are bracing for the possibility the National Labor Relations Board, stacked with Obama appointees, will move on its own to ease unionization standards. And after Democrats in Congress came up short, the Federal Communications Commission faces new pressure to impose Net-neutrality rules on Internet providers.

Obama’s ability to flex his executive muscle will ultimately turn on the elections. A Republican takeover of one or both chambers of Congress would force the White House onto the defensive, parrying aggressive GOP oversight and a push by the party to defund the health care overhaul. But Obama has plenty left on his to-do list, and with Congress or without it, he’ll forge ahead.

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