His new Republican counterparts may become a foil, as they did for Bill Clinton in 1996, to which Obama can compare himself favorably and blame for blocking legislation. Alternatively, or they may prove a formidable enemy, blocking the president's every move.
If his grandiose lawmaking period is over, Obama will have to concede to passing small bills or tweaking his signature legislation.
"There is going to be a lot of talking and a lot of getting down to brass tacks at first," Clark said.
Ultimately, Obama's chances for re-election in 2012 depend less on whether he works together or in opposition to the Republicans, and much more on the strength of the economy.
"If the economy doesn't improve, he is going to have a very long ex-presidency. It won't matter how he handles the Republicans. Clinton didn't win by using the Republicans as a foil because he was clever. He won using the Republicans as foil because the economy improved," said Sabato.
"It doesn't matter how handles the Republicans. Have you ever heard of a president being reelected with 9 percent unemployment?"