Newt Gingrich's return to prominence may not last, but it should stir memories of the last time he was a major national figure. Revisiting the events of 1996 allows us to imagine a different scenario than most expect this election year.

Back in 1995, as in 2011, powerful Republican leaders (including Gingrich) faced a Democratic president who had been weakened by a stinging midterm defeat. They blocked his initiatives and tried to use their power in Congress to bring him down. By the end of 1995, gridlock had reached a new high with the government shutdown and the failure of budget talks. Sound familiar?

Most experts expected things to get even worse in 1996. Then a few things happened to change that. Bill Clinton regained his footing, sharpened his reelection message, and was buoyed by better economic news. Congress grew less popular as voters became dissatisfied with its obstructionism. There were mounting signs of another tidal-wave election, this one in Democrats' favor. And the party lost enthusiasm for its lackluster nominee, Bob Dole.

The result: Gingrich and fellow Republican leaders in Congress decided to work with Clinton to pass a raft of important legislation. These included a balanced-budget deal, an extension of health-care coverage, and sweeping welfare reform.

Republicans decided that working with the White House to improve Congress' standing was more important than continuing to obstruct the president's agenda and limiting him to one term.

Mirror images

Could the 2012 election year shape up the same way? Could the most do-nothing, gridlocked Congress in memory change direction and decide to save its own political hide? Might it choose to produce results by cooperating with President Obama, even if it undercuts the GOP front-runner for the presidential nomination, Mitt Romney?

The odds are long. Yet in recent weeks, signs of a reversal have emerged.

The payroll-tax standoff that the president won before Christmas was the first evidence that the laws of political gravity are finally taking hold: Congressional Republicans cannot defy public demands for action on the economy indefinitely without political cost.

The Republicans who were blocking the extension of the tax cut in an attempt to weaken Obama couldn't withstand the damage to their own prospects. In the end, they decided to do what was in their political interests - and Obama's - rather than Romney's.

There have been further developments that could result in a turnaround in congressional attitudes. Obama's approval rating has risen, while public perception of Congress remains at an all-time low. Better economic news - such as the recent report of a reduction in unemployment - reinforces this dynamic.

Finally, the growing sense that Romney will be the tepidly accepted nominee by default - much as Dole was in 1996 - is forcing Republicans to reconsider what price they are prepared to pay for him.

Different times

True, the partnership of Clinton, Gingrich, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott had some features that are absent now, including a top presidential adviser who provided counsel to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue (Dick Morris, who served as an important go-between for Clinton and Lott); Gingrich's ability to make his rank-and-file accept bipartisan bargains, which John Boehner lacks; and the absence of an aggressive, far-right, grassroots movement like today's tea party.

In addition, reapportionment and redistricting (and the Senate seats that happen to be up for election) mean there are fewer Republicans at risk this year than in 1996. That may allow the party's lawmakers to withstand more heat from the public as they keep their nominee afloat.

Even so, Obama has some assets that Clinton lacked. First, the White House's "We Can't Wait" campaign has more effectively made congressional obstruction a central election issue.

Second, Democrats have the majority in one of the two legislative chambers. As a result, they don't need Senate Republican leaders to make progress; they just need seven nervous Republican senators.

Third, congressional Republicans have far less personally invested in Romney's candidacy than they did in that of their old friend and colleague Dole, a longtime Senate leader.

The president's recent rhetoric and actions - the crisper stump speech, the recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - don't endanger bipartisan cooperation. In fact, they make progress more likely because they show Republicans that the president can score points without them if need be. The Republicans' political dilemma grows more acute each time Obama wins a confrontation.

Certainly, hard-core Republicans in the House and those with safe seats in the Senate are likely to block progress in 2012 and spend political capital to advance the Romney cause. But the president's higher standing, his sharper election-year instincts, his communications strategy, and signs of an improving economy will give his congressional opponents second thoughts about the slash-and-burn strategy they have followed for the past three years.

Just as they caved to Obama on the payroll-tax extension to save their own skins, they could find it useful to hand him wins this year on energy policy, fiscal policy, and job creation as a way of enhancing their own standing with angry voters.

Think it can't happen? Ask Gingrich.

Ron Klain, a former chief of staff for Vice President Biden and senior adviser to President Obama, is a Bloomberg View columnist.