STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Never mind losing the whole of Congress, President Obama stepped before the cameras yesterday. He briskly defended his record, and he said he hopes to squeeze every last little bit of opportunity out of the final two years of his administration.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The American people overwhelmingly believe that this town doesn't work well and that it is not attentive to their needs. And as president, they rightly hold me accountable to do more to make it work properly.
INSKEEP: The president managed to sound like he might genuinely look forward to the chance to work with Mitch McConnell; that's the Kentucky senator expected to be the new Senate majority leader. The Republican has been a scourge to the White House, but he has also worked with the administration in vital moments. Both men promised to look for common ground. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: One thing to note about President Obama's position is it's not unusual. Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all had to contend with an opposition Congress during their last two years in office. And as McConnell says, they still managed to get some big things done.
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SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: When the American people choose divided government, I don't think it means they don't want us to do anything. I think it means they want us to look for areas of agreement.
HORSLEY: In back-to-back news conferences yesterday, McConnell and Obama both identified areas where they might find common ground, including tax reform, trade deals and increased funding for public works projects. Neither party has much practice with compromise lately, but former Clinton adviser Bill Galston says divided government doesn't have to be a recipe for gridlock.
BILL GALSTON: The Republicans, it seems to me, have some pretty strong incentives to begin to rebuild their party's damaged brand and to convince the American people that they are something more than the party of no.
HORSLEY: And Galston, who's now with the Brookings Institution, says Obama is in a similar spot.
GALSTON: Other than a successful 2012 re-election campaign, President Obama has very little to show for the past four years. Will he want the final two years of his presidency to continue in that vein, or would he like to burnish his legacy and finish strong?
HORSLEY: The president has invited congressional leaders from both parties to the White House tomorrow to talk about the way forward. He even joked about having a drink with McConnell, saying he'd enjoy having some bourbon with the Kentucky senator. Even as he tries to bridge the divide with congressional Republicans, though, Obama still plans to use his executive powers in the coming weeks to change the immigration system potentially protecting some immigrants in the country illegally from deportation. Obama insists he's doing so only because the House has blocked passage of a bipartisan Senate immigration bill, but McConnell warns the president's move could poison the well of compromise before the new Congress even takes office.
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MCCONNELL: It's like waving a red flag in front of a bull to say, if you guys don't do what I want, I'm going to do it on my own.
HORSLEY: For their part, Republicans promised to chip away at the president's signature health care law. McConnell acknowledges he won't have the veto-proof majority needed to repeal the law altogether. But Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, says Republicans can go after unpopular pieces of the law, including the mandate for employers to cover part-time workers and attacks on medical devices.
DREW ALTMAN: While those fights may get a lot of attention, particularly in the Washington fishbowl, absolutely none of them strike at the core of the law.
HORSLEY: And despite pressure from some conservatives to draw a harder line against the president, McConnell promised no more government shutdowns or threats of default on the federal debt. In the past, those tactics backfired on Republicans. Jason Grumet, who heads the Bipartisan Policy Center, says when you practice all-or-nothing politics, you tend to wind up with nothing.
JASON GRUMET: Our view is not that people should compromise just because it's, you know, fun. People compromise because they have to. And it's simply the only way in a divided country to get things done.
HORSLEY: And while the American public is still deeply divided in many respects, Galston, the former Clinton adviser, says there is a growing consensus around the need to get things done.
GALSTON: People are sick and tired of what they've been seeing in Washington. They want something different. Their patience for business as usual has worn very, very thin
HORSLEY: Galston notes around the time of the last midterm elections four years ago, most Americans told pollsters they'd rather have a lawmaker who stood his ground even if no legislation got passed. They've seen how that worked out. Today more people want their politicians to compromise. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.