Trick question: How much would Obama have to win by to get the G.O.P. to work with him?

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Barack Obama. (www.whitehouse.gov)
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Blake Zeff

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The polls are looking good for Barack Obama: he's in a strong position to win a second term, and he might even win big.

If he does, the question of whether he has been given a "mandate" will arise.

And the answer, as far as his ability to compel the Republican opposition in Washington to work with him during a second term, will be: no.

The voters will have chosen Obama over Mitt Romney, no small feat in these economic conditions. But the victory won't change the fact that there are serious limits to what Obama can actually accomplish after the election, regardless of the size of his victory.

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For one thing, as strong as Obama's prospects may look right now, it's just as likely that the Republican Party will maintain strong control of the House of Representatives. This is the same House, recall, that blocked key efforts of the president's first term like pay equity for women, limits on student loan rates and campaign finance disclosure. What would be different this time around?

If the president were to win a second term, "the fever would break," Joe Biden and assorted Obama aides have said, and the Republican Party would realize it needs to change its approach.

But this overlooks the fact that the Republican House caucus remains "severely conservative," to borrow Romney's words, and is dominated by religious, anti-government white southern males. Getting them to suddenly reassess their ideological and political thinking would require more than Mitt Romney—hardly a charter member of their club—losing an election. If Obama wins, a good chunk of the party will in fact conclude that Romney, like McCain before him, lost because he wasn't conservative enough.

Biden's "fever" theory also ignores the fact that if the House Republican caucus were itself reelected, its members would claim the very same sort of mandate as the president would. Just as the voters had returned Obama to the White House, they'd say, the voters had returned the G.O.P. leadership to the House to check his agenda.

There's another impediment to the idea of an Obama mandate: The president will have trouble claiming that he was returned to office to enact specific policy initiatives, since he did not explicitly run on any, really. Sure, he released a policy book outlining a wish list of measures. And yes, he proposed a jobs bill that contained popular items. But this was not a campaign built around a specific agenda so much as "who do you trust"- type values arguments.

The last president who attempted to use political capital to kickstart a second-term agenda that he did not specifically outline during the campaign was George W. Bush. After squeezing by on national security and "steady leader" arguments in 2004, Bush told the country he had a mandate and was ready to use it on privatizing Social Security. Those efforts not only failed, but set the policy effort back years (a propositon that would be tested by a Romney-Ryan victory).

Obama soared to office four years ago with 365 electoral college votes, coming off of two historically tight races before it. Almost immediately afterward, the Republican Party, as now documented in Michael Grunwald's book The New New Deal, consciously decided to oppose the new president on every initiative he championed. The effort to obstruct Obama's agenda, roil up partisan tensions and muddy his popularity worked. In the 2010 midterm elections, Obama's party was obliterated, losing 63 seats in the House.

What lesson do you suppose the Republicans took from that?

Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and a former aide to Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman.