With the 112th Congress of the United States beginning its work this week, President Barack Obama can expect that many, if not most, of his policy initiatives for 2011 will literally be “up-Hill” struggles, beleaguered by attacks and blockades from a fresh crop of conservatives in the House of Representatives.
Since the November Congressional election handed Democrats a stinging defeat in many States, reversing their control of the House entirely and thinning out their majority in the Senate, the President was quick to strike an inclusive note in its aftermath, in which he emphasised that Republicans shared the responsibility for governing a nation reeling under the effects of the global economic downturn.
Yet the notion of a post-November shift in power balance may be somewhat exaggerated, for it could be argued that it is the Republicans who are between a rock — the Democratic policy juggernaut that is the Obama White House — and a hard place.
Indulge in a thought experiment for a moment. The year is 2011 and the month is, let us say, April. The U.S. unemployment rate is still hovering at above nine per cent, as it has been for most of the previous year.
President Obama, sensing that a funding boost for unemployment support programmes is necessary to reduce the numbers of desperate, near-bankrupt ordinary Americans, proposes a bill to that effect. The Senate passes it narrowly, and it goes to the House.
If the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, takes a view that supporting such a bill would be true to the mandate that he has been handed by voters — to get the U.S. economy back on track following its dramatic collapse under a Republican administration — he and his colleagues would support it and it would pass.
In that scenario his party would still be able to project an image of capable governance and effective bipartisan deal-making, an asset that might prove to be vital during the 2012 presidential elections. Given that the Democratic campaign is certain to blame the Republicans for engendering the crisis this image might well be the deciding factor.
If Mr. Boehner however bends to the will of newbie Congressmen with Tea-Party roots, who will invariably be baying for deficit reduction measures, even during the worst recession in 80 years, he would endanger the prospects of his party in 2012, and with it his own political future.
The reason for this is that besides the risk that Congressional obstructionism through filibuster could deprive the Republicans of any claim to responsible governance, the Republican Party is still struggling to come up with a suitable candidate to run against President Obama in 2012.
Hence the Republicans need every bit of political ammunition they can find if they are to have any hope at all of recapturing the White House; and in that context, to appear callous to the needs of those who have suffered the most during the recession, or to those who have benefitted from last year's game-changing healthcare reform, could be tantamount to political suicide.
Also, as economists such as Paul Krugman and Christina Romer have pointed out, there is a genuine concern that early rollbacks of stimulus policies, in fear of deficit expansion, could resurrect the nightmarish prospect of a long-festering recession, similar to what actually happened in the 1930s.
Similarly Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius warned in an op-ed this week that if deficit hawks attempted to get the healthcare reform laws repealed, that would ironically add close to a trillion dollars to the deficit.
The flipside of that coin, that the U.S.' gargantuan deficit could cripple its economy through a multitude of macroeconomic effects, is certainly a real danger too but one that might be relatively less immediate in terms of its consequences for middle-class Americans.
It is not as though Republicans are unmindful of these ground realities. The problem is that they are equally aware that their control over the House gives them leverage to bargain with the Democrats and the White House — which taken to an extreme could imply a full-scale government shutdown as demonstrated by former House Speaker and Republican Newt Gingrich.
Yet if Mr. Boehner takes Republicans down the path that his predecessor did, history suggests that it is the House majority party, and perhaps millions of furloughed public sector workers, who would feel the pain of government departments suddenly coming to a grinding halt and the flow of pay cheques drying up.
When Mr. Gingrich brought that fate upon the U.S. in 1995, in the heat of a mounting personal rivalry with erstwhile President Bill Clinton, the fallout was that his poll ratings dropped dramatically while Mr. Clinton's public approval soared and brought him a step closer to getting re-elected to a second term.
If all this appears obvious then for what murkier reasons might Mr. Boehner choose to impose a stranglehold on Congress?
The answer comes back again and again to the Tea Party. With even President Obama admitting that Democrats got a “shellacking” in November, the unmistakable wave of discontented voters picking red over blue was interpreted in some quarters as a victory for the Tea Party, which had finally “arrived” in the mainstream.
Yet as the case of Christine O'Donnell demonstrated, the average American voter often shies away from the Tea Party's relatively extreme views on certain subjects — including race relations and the role of religion in politics.
In the primaries Ms O'Donnell, a self-confessed former practitioner of witchcraft, knocked out incumbent Congressman Michael Castle from the race but then ended up losing the House seat to Democrat Chris Coons in November. Speaking after his victory Mr. Coons said to voters, “You sent a message that the politics of no, the politics of division, the politics of negativity have no place in this great state.”
Doubtless senior Republican strategists somewhere were gnashing their teeth in frustration as Ms O'Donnell's foray sabotaged, even if unwittingly, the prospects of a mainstream Republican candidate.
Nevertheless, given their considerable presence in the 2011 Congress — they hold 40 seats in the House, out of a total of 435 seats — the Tea Party Congressmen's strident messages on everything from social conservatism to cutting government welfare spending may have already weighed on Mr. Boehner's calculations.
However if his insecurities about the Tea Party causing cracks in the Republican machine prompt Mr. Boehner to stall the very functioning of Congress, then that might be a sign that the Grand Old Party is more internally fragile than even Mr. Obama and his Democratic colleagues could imagine in their wildest dreams.
Republicans need every bit of political ammunition they can find if they are to have any hope at all of recapturing the White House.