President Barack Obama dispatched Mitt Romney a little more than a month ago but now faces an unpredictable new threat: a deeply divided House GOP that doesn't even seem capable of bargaining with him.
Obama had hoped the election would unclog the works in Washington. His aides often speculated that he'd be freer to negotiate because he didn't have to run again -- and Republicans didn't have to run against him.
But Thursday's revolt was a grim reminder of how closely Obama's future is tethered to that of his political rivals.
If House Speaker John Boehner can't muscle his own bill through the House, his power to persuade his colleagues to accept a deal with the White House appears greatly diminished. And that means it might be tough for Obama to forge any agreement with House Republicans to avert the fiscal cliff this year -- or to push through his second-term agenda in the years to come.
The path forward looked unclear even to senior administration officials late Thursday.
Aides had thought the House wrangling would stretch past midnight, so many had left the White House early in the evening -- only to see Boehner pull the bill from floor at 8 p.m., much sooner than expected. They took it as a sign that Boehner wasn't even close.
Obama press secretary Jay Carney released a purposefully restrained statement -- a shift after days of senior administration officials accusing Boehner of strategic incompetence and political cowardice. The president will work with Congress, Carney said, to find a bipartisan solution.
But by the time Carney responded, Boehner had already signaled that he had no intention of returning to the bargaining table with Obama. After his own strategy backfired, Boehner said in a statement that Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) needed to come up with a solution -- not exactly the message that the White House was hoping to hear.
Now, negotiations move onto unusual turf.
In the normal choreography of such deal-making, Boehner would have been able to pass his bill and likely come back to the negotiating table wielding a new GOP bottom line: no tax hike on anyone making less than $1 million. Obama is seeking tax hikes on families $400,000 and up, so some split-the-difference number -- $600,000, maybe $750,000 -- might have been attainable.
But with Boehner unable even to get a "millionaires' tax" through his irascible caucus, it's less clear than ever where that common ground might be.
Even if Boehner and Obama can reach a compromise, Obama will need to decide whether no deal at all is better than the type of deal that might make it through the House -- something with less tax revenue and more spending cuts than Obama believes he should have to accept. For example, if Obama is going to raise the income threshold, he would want more in return for such a concession, and there's no really no way he could wring out more from Boehner.
The White House's best hope is that Boehner takes a drastically different course and breaks with his own allies. He could decide to negotiate the best bipartisan package possible and put it on the floor with unanimous Democratic support and the backing of Republicans who want to avoid the cliff.
But there's little expectation that he'll go that route and weaken his already shaky hold on the speakership. Boehner would flout the "majority of the majority" policy, which was instituted a decade ago by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill). It means that leaders do not put a bill on the floor unless it has the support of a majority of the majority.
"If Boehner keeps insisting on majority of the majority, we go over the cliff, since it's now clear nothing but a straight-up tea party bill can pass the house under those conditions," a senior Democratic Senate aide said.
The collapse of Boehner's Plan B was not really good news for Obama, even though Democrats took delight in it. Democrats believe -- and polls back this up -- that Republicans will get blamed if the U.S. goes over the cliff. Boehner's miscalculation is likely to harden public opinion against the GOP.
But the White House has to be worried that at some point, the public questions will turn to Obama's stewardship of the process, and that's where Boehner's weakness is troublesome.
Even though administration officials say the president is willing to go over the cliff, their preference, by far, is a sweeping compromise that lifts the economy, notches another major win for Obama's legacy and allows him to start his second term with a clean slate.
Instead, they may need to settle for a smaller deal under consideration by Senate leaders -- an extension of tax breaks on income below $250,000 and unemployment insurance, along with a fix for both the alternative minimum tax, which hits upper middle-income families, and the annual cut in reimbursement rates for Medicare providers. This package would not address the dramatic spending cuts scheduled to take effect in the new year.
Or Obama does nothing and waits until a market shock or voter outrage forces both parties back to the table.
The problem, as Obama himself conceded, is that the GOP members who are causing him the most grief are utterly immune to the mandate he thinks he earned on Nov. 6. Their districts, many of them in the South, are gerrymandered to be as conservative as possible, and they are far more afraid of a tea party challenge from the right than any price they would pay with the center for bucking a national trend.
At a White House news conference on Wednesday, a visibly frustrated Obama made an explicit, if futile, plea for his congressional opponents to take him out of the equation in negotiations over the fiscal cliff.
"It is very hard for them to say yes to me," the president said, referring to the staunch opposition of the party's right wing to tax increases -- an intransigence vividly illustrated by Boehner's failed attempt to pass the millionaires tax Thursday.
"At some point, they've got to take me out of it and think about their voters, and think about what's best for the country," he continued. "And if they do that -- if they're not worried about who's winning and who's losing, did they score a point on the President, did they extract that last little concession, did they force him to do something he really doesn't want to do just for the heck of it, and they focus on actually what's good for the country."
Glenn Thrush contributed to this report.