With what Republicans are describing as a mandate from the sweeping results of their wave election victories, the incoming majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFEC flags McConnell campaign over suspected accounting errors Poll: 59 percent think president elected in November should name next Supreme Court justice Mark Kelly: Arizona Senate race winner should be sworn in 'promptly' MORE (R-Ky.), seems out of sorts with the lack of supplication offered by the president.

We can't be sure, but it would appear that President Obama has decided that his legacy will be one of increasingly progressive policy stances. His declaration in support of net neutrality, executive action on the immigration issue, nomination of a black woman for attorney general, announcement of deal with China on limiting carbon emissions and negative remarks about the Keystone XL pipeline project all seem to be pointing in that direction.

The Republicans are divided in their response, but clearly are upset with this behavior. McConnell, the consummate dealmaker, looks as if he will quickly be painted into a corner on how he can play his hand. In the short run, the failure of the Keystone XL pipeline vote indicated that he can rely on as many as nine Democratic votes to sustain cloture when the issue is resurfaced in January. So the question becomes one of what else happens next.


Obama will be within his rights to veto the pipeline legislation, because a portion of it is still tied up in the Nebraska court system and because most of the oil to be transported is slated for export, which really puts a hole in the energy independence argument. More importantly, most of the oil to be carried in the pipeline has been shipped using other means of transportation, so the actual need for the line has diminished. Given the rapidly declining wholesale price for oil, there may well be a move by the pipeline sponsors to postpone it, even if it is approved.

If the president keeps going in the direction he appears to be headed, he will move ahead in each policy area where he feels he has executive authority and simply exercise the veto pen when Republicans make their moves. He would be wise to clearly indicate what he is willing to sign before the votes. If he does so, it will surely further sour McConnell's mood since Republicans need legislative accomplishments in order to position themselves for the 2016 presidential push. The problem is that the Tea Party contingent in the Senate, namely Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz blocks amended resolution honoring Ginsburg over language about her dying wish Trump argues full Supreme Court needed to settle potential election disputes Press: Notorious RBG vs Notorious GOP MORE (R-Texas) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeMcConnell shores up GOP support for coronavirus package McConnell tries to unify GOP Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump MORE (R-Utah), will quickly take to the lectern and start playing havoc with the substance of any moderate legislation being considered. Cruz has already demonstrated he is quite willing and capable of leading the Republicans over the government shutdown ramparts and doesn't notice or mind getting stuck in the moat.

The president is in a position to play his hand adroitly by publicly announcing the tit-for-tat trade-offs that are usually handled outside the line of public sight. For example, he could demand that the legislation for the pipeline include funds for building infrastructure. He has argued that as many as 60,000 jobs could be created if the estimated $8 billion in funds needed to build the pipeline were used for infrastructure projects. That is just one issue area. Polling results demonstrate quite clearly that he is on safe ground when it comes to improving the economy, job creation, protection from terrorists, education, the financial safety nets, budget deficits, tax reform, gun control and crime.

If you understand where the Republican Party needs to go between January 2015 and November 2016 and the professed desire on their part to avoid the stigma of another government shutdown, the president is in an excellent position to take the high road by publicly encouraging legislative initiatives but stipulating the trade-offs in order to do so. Republicans want corporate tax reductions; the president can require trade-offs such as eliminating the ability of hedge fund operatives to report their income as capital gains rather than ordinary income, or removal of the income cap for Social Security deductions. Republicans want further deficit reduction; Obama can require that part of it be tied to the elimination of corporate and individual tax loopholes or a change in the thresholds for estate taxes. Republicans want international trade deals; there is no reason not to require a solution for educational and re-training requirements for workers or restrictions on corporation inversions or off-shore profit sequestering. Republicans want a muscular response to terrorist threats; this could be accommodated through immigration reforms.

The idea is not to drive Republicans crazy, but to challenge them to confront and incorporate some of the policy requirements they have so successfully squelched for the past four years. This is actually something McConnell understands. Since he and the president also understand that his party and the president are separately posturing for the next presidential election, there need not be any pretense of brotherly love. So, for example, when McConnell says that tax increases are non-negotiable or "off the table," the president can simply respond by suggesting that the American people require a trade-off. When McConnell points to the election results, the president can point to the polling numbers.

What Obama has to avert this time around is losing the messaging battle. Oddly enough, he is advantaged by a severely wounded Democratic Party. Since his party turned its back on him in the last election and suffered a humiliating defeat in the process, he is completely free to set the policy agenda for the next election. Plus, many of the DINO (Democrats in Name Only) Democrats like Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) will be gone, so he can be more progressive. This will burnish his legacy. He has no need or obligation to waffle, as he did pre-election with the immigration issue. He need only follow the polls and design his message around the strongly held convictions of Americans. If he does so publically and openly so that the political trades are all put forward as a means to help the great majority, the middle class and the economy, and are consistent with polling data, he can easily paint the Republicans as negative business vassals with a peculiar idea of individualism that is designed to shortchange all but the privileged.

Where he has continuously fallen short in the past has been his inability or willingness to call out the opposition in a way that resonates with voters. Now he can stand above the fray and simply put to Republicans that which every thinking American already knows: Congress needs to take into account the popular will. It is so hard to believe that President Obama will actually sustain the leadership stance he just started, but if he does, he secures the election for the next Democrat and really frustrates the majority leader. If he does not, the outcome is uncertain.

Russell is managing director of Cove Hill Advisory Services.