Consider, as another example, the storied political career of President Franklin Roosevelt. Because the mood was ripe for dramatic change in the depths of the Great Depression, FDR was able to push an astonishing array of New Deal programs through a largely compliant Congress, assuming what some described as near-dictatorial powers. But in his second term, full of confidence because of a landslide victory in 1936 that brought in unprecedented Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Roosevelt overreached with his infamous Court-packing proposal. All of a sudden, the political capital that experts thought was limitless disappeared. FDR’s plan to expand the Supreme Court by putting in his judicial allies abruptly created an unanticipated wall of opposition from newly reunited Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats. FDR thus inadvertently handed back to Congress, especially to the Senate, the power and influence he had seized in his first term. Sure, Roosevelt had loads of popularity and momentum in 1937. He seemed to have a bank vault full of political capital. But, once again, a president simply chose to take on the wrong issue at the wrong time; this time, instead of most of the political interests in the country aligning his way, they opposed him. Roosevelt didn’t fully recover until World War II, despite two more election victories.
In terms of Obama’s second-term agenda, what all these shifting tides of momentum and political calculation mean is this: Anything goes. Obama has no more elections to win, and he needs to worry only about the support he will have in the House and Senate after 2014. But if he picks issues that the country’s mood will support—such as, perhaps, immigration reform and gun control—there is no reason to think he can’t win far more victories than any of the careful calculators of political capital now believe is possible, including battles over tax reform and deficit reduction.
Amid today’s atmosphere of Republican self-doubt, a new, more mature Obama seems to be emerging, one who has his agenda clearly in mind and will ride the mood of the country more adroitly. If he can get some early wins—as he already has, apparently, on the fiscal cliff and the upper-income tax increase—that will create momentum, and one win may well lead to others. “Winning wins.”
Obama himself learned some hard lessons over the past four years about the falsity of the political-capital concept. Despite his decisive victory over John McCain in 2008, he fumbled the selling of his $787 billion stimulus plan by portraying himself naively as a “post-partisan” president who somehow had been given the electoral mandate to be all things to all people. So Obama tried to sell his stimulus as a long-term restructuring plan that would “lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth.” The president thus fed GOP suspicions that he was just another big-government liberal. Had he understood better that the country was digging in against yet more government intervention and had sold the stimulus as what it mainly was—a giant shot of adrenalin to an economy with a stopped heart, a pure emergency measure—he might well have escaped the worst of the backlash. But by laying on ambitious programs, and following up quickly with his health care plan, he only sealed his reputation on the right as a closet socialist.
After that, Obama’s public posturing provoked automatic opposition from the GOP, no matter what he said. If the president put his personal imprimatur on any plan—from deficit reduction, to health care, to immigration reform—Republicans were virtually guaranteed to come out against it. But this year, when he sought to exploit the chastened GOP’s newfound willingness to compromise on immigration, his approach was different. He seemed to understand that the Republicans needed to reclaim immigration reform as their own issue, and he was willing to let them have some credit. When he mounted his bully pulpit in Nevada, he delivered another new message as well: You Republicans don’t have to listen to what I say anymore. And don’t worry about who’s got the political capital. Just take a hard look at where I’m saying this: in a state you were supposed to have won but lost because of the rising Hispanic vote.
Obama was cleverly pointing the GOP toward conclusions that he knows it is already reaching on its own: If you, the Republicans, want to have any kind of a future in a vastly changed electoral map, you have no choice but to move. It’s your choice.
The future is wide open.
This article appears in the Feb. 9, 2013, edition of National Journal as There’s No Such Thing as Political Capital.