For the third time in three elections, Americans have voted for change. They returned control of the House over to Republicans and made gains in the Senate. The result means two more years of bickering and gridlock in Washington.
Domestic policy will feel the brunt of the election. Domestic issues like deficits and bailouts of too-big-to-fail firms drove the campaign, not just among the Tea Partiers who energized Republicans but also among the Independents who abandoned the Democrats. President Barack Obama's domestic initiatives will be stillborn unless Congress agrees.
The dynamic is different in foreign policy. On many foreign policy issues, presidents can act as they wish until Congress stops them. The Republican House will certainly try. Legislation to mandate tougher action like stiffened sanctions to try to contain Iran's nuclear program is inevitable. Bills to counter China's unfair trade practices; revamp the United Nations; and punish unfriendly regimes in Cuba, North Korea, and Syria will gain momentum. Obama's plan to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan starting next summer will draw fire.
But as long as Obama is prepared to veto bills he dislikes, he will carry the day. Congress has not overridden a foreign policy veto in a quarter century.
Obama will hit roadblocks on those foreign policy issues that require congressional approval. Indeed, he already has. Cap-and-trade climate change legislation is dead, the New START Treaty on reducing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arms is in intensive care, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty remains in its political grave. New START might yet pass, either during the lame duck session that starts in two weeks or after the Senate reconvenes in January. But there is no Senate appetite for new arms control agreements.
Republicans looking to cut spending will target foreign aid, even though any savings will be minuscule relative to a $1.3 trillion deficit. The $750 billion defense budget offers more potential savings. But the deficit-cutting imperative will wilt when faced with the competing Republican urge to support the military, not to mention the political interests that will defend programs targeted for cuts.
Obama and Republican leaders will need to decide whether to find common ground over the next two years. Trade offers one possibility for bipartisanship. Congress will not pass trade promotion authority empowering Obama to undertake new trade negotiations. But bilateral trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama currently await congressional action.
Success on even these modest measures is questionable. Congressional Democrats have few reasons to help the White House. Their constituents oppose free trade, and Obama hasn't shown he can help Democrats who cast politically tough votes.
Meanwhile, Republicans will be similarly divided. Voters of all political persuasions have become more skeptical of trade. Some Republicans will resist handing the White House any victories. Just last week, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said his top priority was ensuring that Obama is a one-term president.
With the 2012 presidential election now starting in earnest, McConnell's comment highlights the most likely consequence of Tuesday's election--intensified partisanship and gridlock. Americans may want Washington to change its ways, but their votes are encouraging business as usual.