Barack Obama and black America wake up today to a new political reality: a House of Representatives under control of the Republican Party and a U.S. Senate with a slim Democratic majority. The White House started putting its spin on the shift of power in the week before the election. There were hints that Obama could be more effective as an underdog and that the new Republican majority in the House would now have to shoulder some of the responsibility for the moribund economy.
This is all spin, of course. There's nothing better than controlling both houses when you're president of the United States. Obama faces a daunting task now: trying to re-ignite the American economy in partnership with a House led by John Boehner, a Republican who fundamentally disagrees with the president's approach.
The president will have to deal with an all-white Senate. All three black Senate candidates — Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), Alvin Greene (D-S.C.) and Mike Thurmond (D-Ga.) — are projected to lose. The only incumbent black senator, Roland Burris (D-Ill.), who filled Barack Obama's seat and then got caught up in the Rod Blagojevich scandal, is retiring.
With a narrow Democratic margin led by Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who held off Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle in a close race, the president will still need substantial Republican support to pass any legislation. Whether he can win that backing will depend on what position the GOP will take in the coming year: support the president on legislation that benefits all Americans or stonewall him with the goal of ensuring that he is a one-term chief executive.
With Republicans in charge of the House, black power in the federal government will be sharply diminished as several committee chairmanships held by African Americans will transfer to the party in majority. For example, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who was the majority whip, will lose his perch as the driving force for the president's legislative efforts. So will Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) as chair of the Homeland Security Committee, and John Conyers (D-Mich.) as chair of the House Judiciary Committee. The new GOP majority also means that investigations into failures in intelligence and financial regulation will take a different tone, with Republicans chairing the committees that lead those investigations.
The big question is about where this new configuration will lead. Having run on a platform that opposed saving the auto companies and bailing out the banks, Republicans will now have to decide what will bring back the U.S. economy and put people to work. Even as they savored victory, GOP leaders were already hedging away from responsibility. "The president sets the agenda," Boehner declared, although he said he was looking for Obama to "change course" and "respect the will of the people."
Barack Obama may not change course, but he will surely face a new reality in 2011. African Americans will likely wonder how effective the first black president can be in the next two years leading to the 2012 presidential elections.
Joel Dreyfuss is The Root's managing editor.