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The Battle for Congress

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Cross-posted from The Nation


The presidency is not enough.

If the polling from battleground states is to be believed, President Obama's re-election chances are now better than even his most enthusiastic backers anticipated just a few months ago. Yet this year's campaign is about a lot more than an increasingly confident Barack Obama versus a bumbling Mitt Romney. Races for control of the House and Senate will determine the character of the next presidency -- no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

"Even if you're focused on getting the president re-elected, you can't take your eyes off the congressional races; not if you're serious about what happens after the election," says Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison. "If Obama wins but gets a Republican House and Senate, which is possible, he could be less able to govern than he is now, with a divided Congress." 

Indeed, argues Michael Lighty, public policy director for National Nurses United, a GOP Congress could pressure Obama to accept destructive "reforms" of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. "It's not as if the Republicans would respect the fact that Obama's been re-elected and suddenly become supportive," says Lighty. "They'd push even harder."

That's right. Progressives who want Obama to move left in a second term have to recognize that this will never happen if Congress moves right. Is the best we can hope for more of the same -- an Obama administration with a narrowly Democratic Senate and a Republican House bent on thwarting the president for the next two years? Or might the shifting electoral dynamics give us the more genuinely progressive Congress that's needed to prod Obama in a bolder direction during debates about entitlement programs and implementation of the Affordable Care Act? And what are the chances for reforms that have gained little traction in a dysfunctional Washington, like a financial transactions tax, or amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United? Is it possible to get a Congress that would actually lead a cautious Democratic president to the left?

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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