The U.S. midterm elections last November saw a seismic shift in American politics with the Democrats losing their majority in the House of Representatives. However, the Republicans in the House appear very much divided just a year before they start choosing their candidate for the 2012 presidential race, while President Barack Obama has rebounded quickly from the defeat to his party and repositioned himself as he seeks a second term, partners at a U.S.-based international law firm said at a recent seminar in Tokyo.

Speaking on the theme “Is change coming? — A preview of U.S. politics and policy in 2011” during the Keizai Koho Center-organized event on Feb. 17, Joshua Galper from Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe LLP said the Republican takeover of the House and their gains in the Senate have created a “very different environment for the president to operate in, for proposing legislation, and actually seeing something get done.”

The new congressional landscape means that there will be less big legislation coming out in the next two years in the “kind of scope and size” that was seen in the first two years of the Obama administration, Galper said.

“You will also see President Obama trying to position himself as a centrist between the more progressive ranks of the Democratic Party and the Republicans. For re-election, he needs to win back the independents that he and the Democrats lost in 2010,” Galper said.

Meanwhile, the Republicans in the House are “much divided” right now, said Adam Goldberg, another partner of the law firm. Traditionally, a small but core base within the Republican Party that drove a lot of its policies were the social conservatives, but the developments since last November’s elections onward saw the growing influence of fiscal conservatives calling for a small government who came together to become colloquially known as the tea party, he pointed out.

How does the situation relate to the 2012 presidential race — now a year before the Republicans officially start the process of choosing their candidate?

“What we see right now is about 10 to 15 potential candidates who want to run on the Republican ticket for president, and there is a wide range of viewpoints and ideologies. . . . When the Republicans choose their presidents, they tend to choose a very conservative candidate. Traditionally, it has been the social conservatives, and it’s a very open question right now how the rising fiscal conservatives will be able to stay cohesive and influence who the next Republican presidential candidate is,” he noted.

Meanwhile, Obama “rebounded very quickly” at the end of last year from the Democrats’ defeat in the midterm elections, Galper noted. He passed several significant pieces of legislation even in the so-called lame duck congressional session, including a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy so that gay men and women can serve openly in the U.S. military; an extension to the tax cuts introduced by the Bush administration; and the approval of the New START treaty, a nuclear arms pact with Russia — a major legislative victory for Obama’s administration, Galper pointed out.

In his new budget proposal earlier this month, the president also appeared to take some different approaches from how he offered big reform plans in his first two years, Galper said. “In one respect, he is taking control to offer up this budget, unlike how financial regulatory reform and health care reform were handled, with a range of more or less given to the Congress to work through before the president stepped in,” he said.

Another sign of change in one of his major agenda items is the way he now casts his clean energy projects, after the huge plans he proposed in the first two years went nowhere, Goldberg said.

“Whereas for the first two years or so he was talking about climate change as an environmental issue, he is now talking about clean energy projects as a jobs issue, and in his State of the Union address (in January) he did so by saying, ‘We’re losing jobs, we’re losing the ways to be technology leaders’ in renewable energy to China, to Japan and to Germany,” he said.