Wall Street Journal
By Carol Lee and Peter Nicholas
November 7, 2012
President Barack Obama turned his focus Wednesday to how he will work with Congress in his second term, while also preparing for the expected departure of many senior administration officials.
Mr. Obama already has scheduled meetings with his senior staff to map out a path for the coming days, including one Thursday to discuss personnel. He immediately faces a fiscal crisis looming at the end of the year, with limited time to bridge differences between the parties over taxes and spending plans.
At the same time, he is preparing for the departure of nearly half to two-thirds of his staff at the highest levels of the White House and across the administration. His top advisers have been working on a plan for filling posts expected to be vacated by senior White House aides, ambassadors and the secretaries of State and Treasury.
One of Mr. Obama's chief goals is to accomplish what he was unable to do in a first term—make major policy strides while working with Republicans, who retained control of the House in Tuesday's election. People close to Mr. Obama said he was looking to send a message to congressional Republicans and to members of his own party, some of whom may see his re-election as a mandate for commitment to their own approach, that he is willing to reach compromises on major initiatives.
"He wants to effectively demonstrate that as early in this process as possible to try to set a new tone," said a person who has been advising the White House.
"If anything, he wants to reduce the sense of dysfunctionality that exists in Washington today by resetting the stage, and this is a reset opportunity," this person added. "You'll certainly see that as early as next week."
Mr. Obama's staff is trying to arrange meetings with congressional leaders this week, while engaging with Democrats and Republicans more heavily next week before he leaves for a trip to Asia.
Mr. Obama is hoping to apply lessons learned from his failed attempts last year to cut a sweeping budget deal with Republicans. He was criticized for most of his first term for not reaching out to members of Congress from either party.
Mr. Obama called congressional leaders from both parties Tuesday night to discuss "finding bipartisan solutions" to deficit-reduction, taxes and jobs, a White House statement said. In his victory speech in Chicago, he identified his priorities as deficit-reduction, an overhaul of the tax code, "fixing our immigration system" and energy independence. He spent most of Wednesday in Chicago, site of his campaign headquarters, before returning to Washington late in the day.
The developments came as the size of Mr. Obama's election victory became clearer. He won no sweeping mandate in the popular vote, carrying about 50% to Mitt Romney's 48%. With 99% of precincts counted, an Associated Press tally showed the president with more than 60,367,000 votes, to about 57,573,000 for Mr. Romney.
But Mr. Obama's lead in the Electoral College was far larger. The president held 303 electoral votes to 206 for Mr. Romney, and he was ahead in the one state whose result was uncertain, Florida, which carries 29 electoral votes.
Mr. Obama's lead in Florida as of Wednesday afternoon was barely outside the 0.5% margin that would trigger a recount, according to the division of elections.
White House aides are closely watching GOP leaders for clues about whether there is an opening for an agreement on fiscal issues and are trying to determine both the approach and tone Mr. Obama should take in engaging Republicans—in particular, how tough a public posture he should take. Mr. Obama believes his re-election gave him a mandate to raise taxes on the wealthy as part of any deficit-reduction deal.
But even beyond Mr. Obama's challenge in negotiating with Republicans, it's not clear how enthusiastically congressional Democrats will back his agenda, especially if it involves compromising with Republicans on longstanding positions on entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Democrats have long complained that Mr. Obama's White House rarely reaches out to them, and many House Democrats believe the president expended little effort helping them in the recent election, a sentiment that is not likely to make his outreach any easier.
Mr. Obama's promise in his victory speech early Wednesday that he would move forward on an overhaul of immigration laws was seconded later Wednesday by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who said immigration would be at the top of the Senate's agenda. "The only thing we need, to get immigration reform done, are a few Republican votes,'' he said. "I get 90% of the Democrats; couldn't we get a few Republicans to join us? So it's high on our list, and we're going to have some votes on it."
Several Democratic victories Tuesday, including Mr. Obama's, were won with considerable support from Latino voters, and immigration advocates hoped that would pressure GOP leaders to back an immigration overhaul.
The goal of such legislation would be offering a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. Any attempt to pass it would come after the White House and Congress address the looming "fiscal cliff," the combination of spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to take effect in January.
The White House has held quiet conversations with lawmakers in both parties about a sweeping immigration overhaul and is looking to identify Republican senators, in particular, who might be willing to cooperate. Past efforts to win cooperation from the GOP have failed. But with the election over, the White House is hopeful Republicans will be more amenable.
Last month, White House officials met with advocates of an immigration overhaul. In the meeting in the West Wing, advocates told the president that "he has to lead in a way that brings conservatives and moderates to the table," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a nonpartisan immigration advocacy group. Mr. Noorani added that the president's victory speech early Wednesday "was a pretty tremendous step in that direction."
Candidates to succeed Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner include White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew and Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of the White House's deficit-reduction panel in 2010. Whoever is selected for the post will have a much different portfolio than that of Mr. Geithner, who spent much of his time dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis. His replacement likely will focus more on budget and tax-policy issues, requiring the ability to negotiate with Congress.
Leading candidates to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are Sen. John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and former Sen. Chuck Hagel. Mrs. Clinton has said she will remain in office until her replacement is confirmed, which likely would be next year.
Attorney General Eric Holder's future in the administration is unclear. Mr. Holder has told administration officials he wants to stay on for a period into the Obama second term, as the Justice Department marks the 50th anniversary of important milestones in the 1960s civil rights struggle. A final decision on how long he stays hasn't been made.