Eight and a half minutes into the final press conference of his first term, President Obama hadn’t talked about anything but reducing budget deficits and the national debt, and increasing the federal borrowing authority. He taunted Republicans—“Turns out, the American people agree with me”—and recycled campaign rhetoric, invoked troops’ paychecks as potential casualties of default, and looked to define the debt-ceiling boost in the White House’s preferred terms: “It simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to.”
Only near the end of his opening remarks did Obama turn to the issues that Democrats hope will mark his second term: energy, immigration, and gun control. If Republicans have their way, the pattern will hold and Obama will be deprived of a meaningful second-term legacy on domestic issues beyond a series of economic rescue missions.
Washington needs no reminder of how big-casino fiscal negotiations can crowd out the rest of a policy agenda. If congressional Republicans hold their ground, they could force a series of “mini-cliffs”—short-term borrowing-authority extensions or continuing budget resolutions that expire every two or three months. The GOP could use budgetary hostage-taking as a reasonable strategic replacement for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s original goal for Obama’s first term: keep him from having a second.
Having failed to replace the man in office, Republicans appear to have settled on the crowding-out strategy. Already, in a climate of ever-lengthening election seasons, issue advocates are eyeing a relatively narrow window for legislative achievement. “We have until November to move immigration reform through the 113th,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which supports comprehensive reform. “After that, it’s all [the midterms].”
Immigration, perhaps the most sweeping of Obama’s second-term legislative priorities, provides a useful case study in how heavily leveraged the president’s docket is. He is seeking to cobble together an unusual coalition of liberals, Latino and Asian voters, business groups, newly invigorated evangelicals, and law-enforcement officials to muscle past a historically arduous opposition.
That ideologically diverse confederation, reform activists say, sets immigration apart: Unlike fiscal fights and gun control, which split mostly along partisan lines, both parties recognize the issue’s political upside. “The way we look at this is that immigration is different; because, of the big issues being debated right now, it’s the only one that has a bipartisan past, present, and future,” Noorani said. “It’s the only issue that has bipartisan tracks heading into 2013.”
But it’s also competing for oxygen with those other two issues, one that has a functional deadline, and the other that relies on the legislative juice generated by the grief and will from the Newtown massacre. And grief and will typically don’t endure in Washington.
“He ran on a less specific but clear enough agenda about what he’s interested in, and there’s just a lot of jockeying right now, positioning right now, around who goes first and what it means,” said Robert Raben, a Democratic lobbyist who works closely with the White House on a range of issues. If the question is which of those will go first, Raben says, “you know what the answer is: Yes, all three are going to make progress in the next two to three months. They’re on different tracks.”
“I think the macro thing is a re-questioning of how you start, or restart, the processings of these issues,” he says. “I think they certainly don’t have a formula.”
Republicans, particularly in the GOP-dominated House and despite the political setback they suffered from the last fiscal-cliff duel, appear perfectly willing to dangle Obama over one budgetary conflagration after another to prevent him from converting his postelection political capital into any sort of legislative table-running.
“All he’s got now is a lot of unfinished business out there that’s certainly going to dominate the first few months of this year,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “As you know, he’s only got a short window of time to get things done.”
One widely publicized Democratic lament during Obama’s first term was that health care reform had led off the White House’s agenda, subsuming in its toxicity other campaign promises. The unrealized climate-change bill is testament to that complaint and may again be left behind in the second term.
But White House officials say that Obama, believing himself schooled in the intractability of Hill Republicans, is more determined to use the bully pulpit and his electoral mandate to push his own agenda. And if Republicans think they can hamstring that agenda, more power to them as they struggle to deal with their own conference’s internal friction.
“If the president is going to fight for more progressive policies, which he seems inclined to do, then you’re going to see the ‘rending pain of reenactment,’ ” said Raben, borrowing a phrase from T.S. Eliot. “If they want to do the debt ceiling every two or three months, you’re going to see the same thing over and over again.”
For Obama, though, the serialized retrials of a debate he believes he’s already won jeopardize the more prized, legacy-ensuring goals he must achieve to guarantee a meaningful second term. And they further subject him to the unsettled desires of an opposition party clearly eager to oppose.
This article appears in the January 19, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as The Plan to Thwart Obama.