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Analysis: A two-person, two-party town in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) -- This is a two-person, two-party town now.

And President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and incoming House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, need each other -- as both partners and foils while they push their own legislative agendas and lay the groundwork for the 2012 elections.

The unlikely duo must find areas of compromise to get something -- anything, really -- done to appease an unhappy electorate demanding economic stability from a government voters don't think works. At the same time, each leader must figure out how to use the other to draw partisan contrasts that will fire up their respective political bases.

Both risk the wrath of voters in two years if they fail on either task; nothing short of Obama's re-election, the Republicans' newfound grip on power and the country's economic well-being is at stake.

For now, Obama is the one on the defensive -- and it showed in the hours after the election, with Democrats uniformly calling for common ground while the GOP put conditions on its willingness to meet halfway. Come January if not sooner, Boehner will command greater capital in Washington and sway over the domestic agenda. But Obama must find a way to reboot his presidency by altering his goals, communicating them better -- or both.

The first glimpses of how both men position themselves came Wednesday, with each leader addressing the public in the wake of Republicans winning control of the House and cutting deeply into Democrats' Senate majority.

Firing the first shot, Boehner signaled acrimony ahead by claiming Obama's health care overhaul was a "monstrosity" and needed to be repealed. He also suggested that the GOP's cooperation was conditional, saying: "We hope President Obama will now respect the will of the people, change course and commit to making the changes they are demanding. To the extent he is willing to do this, we are ready to work with him."

One by one, Democrats -- their ranks diminished -- weighed in and called for a new approach to working together.

Fresh off his own re-election victory, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said he was planning to speak with his GOP counterpart, Mitch McConnell, about ways to "build a consensus and move this country along." The Democrat said the GOP must be more open to compromise, adding that "the time for politics is now over" and Republicans must do more than "simply saying 'no.'"

Still, in a sign of fights ahead, Reid said the health care measure was "ready for some tweaking" but that he won't support any move to repeal it.

Obama planned to weigh in by afternoon.

He struck a collegial tone the night before as the Democratic shellacking became clear, bowing to the new reality of divided government in a brief phone call late Tuesday. He told both Boehner and McConnell that he was "looking forward to working with him and the Republicans to find common ground, move the country forward and get things done for the American people."

And there was talk of forthcoming high profile gathering with Obama and new Republican leadership.

But the day-after rhetoric was typical for the aftermath of a wave election -- and it was likely to disappear as the hard reality takes shape of two parties with opposing viewpoints trying to govern a country in crisis.

In the long-term, the onus is on Republicans and Democrats alike to prove to Americans who are sour on both political parties that Washington isn't broken. Both Obama and Boehner need to show results to keep their jobs in 2012 and, in a split government, the only way to get results is to compromise.

Nothing will get done in Washington without the two meeting somewhere in the middle. And from there, divides also will have to be bridged in the Senate, which will have nearly as many Republicans as Democrats.

Could this two-party governance force politicians with diametrically opposite viewpoints to find common ground?


There's no doubt Obama's predicament will invoke comparisons to presidents who also faced a Congress run by the opposition party. But for all the similarities, there are stark differences, too.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich partnered to enact welfare reform. But the Republican House speaker then was a personally polarizing figure -- one who alienated the electorate -- in a way that Boehner is not, at least not now. Unlike Obama and Boehner, Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill easily developed an amicable relationship that took the edge off their partisan differences in the 1980s. But even Reagan had to moderate his conservative ideas after Republican losses in the House.

Both Clinton and Reagan maneuvered in divided government as the country was trying to recover from recession. But Obama's economy is rebounding at a much slower pace, with just 2 percent growth.

One area of potential compromise for Obama and Boehner concerns free trade treaties with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. But many Republicans want to join Democrats and punish China, raising the risk of a U.S.-China trade war.

Both parties also are awaiting a December report from a bipartisan deficit commission, giving both sides cover as they try to both meet voters' demands and protect their own politics.

On both issues, Republicans would be all but forced to agree with Obama or face charges of hypocrisy after campaigning on them.

For Obama, this may be a second chance to make a first impression.

Throughout his presidential campaign, the Democrat spoke about the need to rise above partisan politics to find pragmatic solutions to the country's ills.

But that proved a fallacy in practice; he forced much of his agenda through the Democratic-controlled Congress with little to no GOP support. And in doing so, he lost the support of independents who had grasped onto his talk of changing the ways of Washington, only to be let down.

Compromise could help him earn their backing again.

He'll need it, given that he will be maneuvering on a presidential playing field far different from the one he won on in 2008. Back then, he won in conservative places like Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina. But Obama's job approval rating is well below 50 percent in many states. And most critical presidential states across the Great Lakes and Midwest region will have Republican governors come January, making his challenge that much greater.

Boehner, for his part, has led the House Republicans for the past four years with a partisan bent. But he's shown a willingness to reach across the aisle in the past, having worked with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on education reform. And a certain amount of bipartisanship could help the GOP as it works to mend an image tarnished by the divisive George W. Bush years.

"We've been given a second chance and a golden opportunity," Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, No. 2 House Republican in the House. He called the outcome a rejection of Obama more than an endorsement of the GOP, cautioning fellow Republicans they must to work to win public confidence.

"People want to see results," he said.

Still, compromising may be difficult given that the GOP is so intent on defeating Obama in two years.

With voters watching, the clock ticking and problems piling up, it's hard to see how either side can afford to retrench to their partisan corners.


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.