Nation’s Challenges Won’t Be Any Easier in 2011

by Stuart Rothenberg December 20, 2010 · 8:00 AM EST

For Democrats, 2010 is ending on a low note.

The party’s circular firing squad over the tax cut deal didn’t help the party’s image, the economy doesn’t yet show signs of a strong enough rebound to bring down unemployment and potential foreign policy problems continue to loom just over the horizon.

The next year is likely to be a struggle for the White House, as it walks a fine line between pragmatism and principle — unless Republicans overplay their hand and make it easy for President Barack Obama to come off as both a statesman and an advocate for the underdog.

The president must show independents that he continues to be willing to work across the aisle to jump-start the economy, just as he did in negotiating a tax cut/unemployment insurance deal with Congressional Republicans. But he must also prove to his Democratic base on Capitol Hill and around the country that he isn’t some namby-pamby moderate squish.

That could mean that the president raises the stakes on climate change, immigration and social justice issues, or even that he starts to push a more populist economic agenda, while also reaching out to the GOP on spending and national security.

Obama’s problem, one veteran Washington, D.C., insider told me recently, is that he doesn’t value Congress as an effective institution and has a less-than-positive impression of most Members on Capitol Hill.

Given that, the way the president negotiated and accepted a tax deal with Republicans is more than a reflection of poor administration groundwork. Instead, it’s a reflection of the president’s governing style and assumptions.

After the tax deal, of course, the Democratic left will feel the need to keep the heat on the president, bashing him every time he tries to work with the GOP and praising him when he won’t. Republicans will do the exact opposite, though their words of encouragement will be muted even when he appears willing to play ball with them.

For Republicans, the question is whether House GOP leaders will be able to educate rambunctious freshmen on the ways of the House, teaching them that the good is not the enemy of the perfect.

Speaker-elect John Boehner has the background and personal skills to deliver that message. But pressure from conservative outside forces — from local tea party activists to cable TV and talk radio bomb-throwers — will make the Ohio Republican’s task in the new year quite difficult.

The first vote of 2011 on raising the debt ceiling, expected to come sometime during the first half of the year, will be an interesting test, both for conservative freshman Republicans and veteran Democrats.

But even while domestic economic issues remain paramount, foreign policy and international issues remain a huge question mark for the year ahead.

Europe’s financial health, nuclear weapons issues (with North Korea and Iran, in particular), Afghanistan and international terrorism could pose considerable challenges for the administration, testing the president in a way that he has not been tested.

In terms of electoral politics, three significant elections are on the horizon for 2011: gubernatorial contests in Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky.

Incumbents Bobby Jindal (R) in Louisiana and Steve Beshear (D) in Kentucky will start off as favorites for re-election, though Republicans are likely to mount a more serious threat to Beshear than Democrats will against Jindal.

In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) can’t seek re-election, creating an open-seat opportunity for Democrats. But with Obama in the White House and Republicans on the rise in the Magnolia State — they won two Congressional districts last month — the GOP nominee will be a solid favorite in November. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant starts off as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

Most states will tackle redistricting over the next 12 months, producing maps that change some incumbents’ prospects and, quite possibly, push some Members into retirement or to run for higher office.

Finally, the turning of the calendar to 2011 will see a flurry of announcements for the 2012 presidential race and for the Congressional elections.

Those announcements (and subsequent fundraising reports) will be important, but even more important will be the evolution of the political environment. How voters feel about government, the president, the two parties, the economy and other issues will determine how they evaluate the candidates and which candidates are likely to have staying power into 2012.

In other words, the next year won’t be boring.