When the president of the most powerful nation is cut down to size politically, both America and the world have cause for worry. Ineffectual leadership, in an era of big power rivalry, virulent threats and high economic stakes, is a liability to both its people and its global partners. If Republicans, flush with mid-term election victory, think it is all just about winning, they have lost the plot. Electoral contest ought to energise the whole and not polarise the parts to the point of policy stasis.
Inaction, especially on the domestic policy front, might characterise the remainder of President Barack Obama's term - a prospect that is heightened not just by entrenched ideological divisions, but also deep hostility between the camps. This was seen in the downright negative campaigns when America voted two years ago and the fierceness of the recent mid-terms, with almost US$4 billion (S$5.2 billion) spent on a mostly issue-less election.
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama believes the entire system is in "political decay", more so than elsewhere. That seems perversely counter-intuitive given the strength of America's institutions, its system of checks and balances, and the many chances for people to vote - for over 10,000 offices during this election.
The trouble is the system makes it possible to "put large groups of voters on the losing side of every election" through gerrymandering, as a Princeton professor noted. This explains how the Republicans seized the House of Representatives in 2012 though the Democrats got 1.4 million more votes. The system also hands a group of 41 out of 100 senators the power to veto most Bills via the filibuster. These naysayers could "in theory represent just 11 per cent of the population", no thanks to the electoral process, observed the Economist magazine.
Mr Obama must realise by now that he cannot afford to continue just staring down such obstructionism. A lame duck president might be tempted to abandon the domestic sphere and burnish his legacy through foreign policy instead, especially with Congress in the firm grip of the Republicans and the White House facing criticism by even Democrats at times, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren. But that would be a mistake. Instead, he should strive to strengthen his team and promote bipartisan effort to advance useful legislation - to address key areas like infrastructural improvements, education, and tax and immigration reform.
Aside from rebooting his administration like his predecessors did in similar circumstances, President Obama ought to also harness his considerable intellect and power of eloquence to reach out and cut deals with others to get things done. As political theorist Edmund Burke said, all government is founded on compromise.