How Obama Can Save His Presidency (Or Not)

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he makes a statement at the State Dining Room of the White House August 8, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke on the economy, S&P downgrade and the loss of Navy SEAL members in Afghanistan. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
Jan. 22, 2014, 3:30 p.m.

On the cusp of his 2014 State of the Uni­on mes­sage, Pres­id­ent Obama is not ex­actly float­ing on air.

His fifth year, which star­ted out with some prom­ise of ma­jor le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ments — mo­mentum for bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion on gun back­ground checks and im­mig­ra­tion, move­ment with a cadre of Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors to­ward at least a mini-grand bar­gain in­volving rev­en­ues and ser­i­ous long-term changes in Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity — came a crop­per early, when the gun bill failed on — what else — a fili­buster in the Sen­ate. As a har­binger, Sen. Pat Toomey, the chief Re­pub­lic­an spon­sor of the back­ground-check bill, ex­plained its fail­ure to Pennsylvania re­port­ers by say­ing some of his GOP col­leagues simply wouldn’t vote in fa­vor be­cause Barack Obama was for it.

Second-term pres­id­en­cies rarely res­ult in strings of ma­jor ac­com­plish­ments. Things get tough­er as each year passes. One’s own party be­gins to get dis­tance as the sixth-year midterms ap­proach, and the num­ber of one’s par­tis­ans al­most in­ev­it­ably di­min­ishes with that elec­tion. And mem­bers of the oth­er party pay less and less at­ten­tion to a lame duck.

But those gen­er­al­iz­a­tions are not in­ev­it­able. There have been ex­amples of ma­jor policy vic­tor­ies in a second term, most not­ably Ron­ald Re­agan’s bi­par­tis­an tri­umph on tax re­form. And trends and pat­terns are not writ­ten in stone. Here is a very op­tim­ist­ic scen­ario for the rest of Barack Obama’s term, fol­lowed by an equally pess­im­ist­ic one.

Through a com­bin­a­tion of his skilled use of the bully pul­pit to define an agenda, and the grow­ing pub­lic un­ease about dra­mat­ic eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity and long-term un­em­ploy­ment, the pres­id­ent scores a set of small but im­port­ant vic­tor­ies, from an in­crease in the min­im­um wage to an ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance. Build­ing on ideas that have been ad­vanced by con­ser­vat­ive in­tel­lec­tu­als, Obama finds a bi­par­tis­an co­ali­tion to sup­port a series of moves to deal with the long-term un­em­ploy­ment prob­lem, in­clud­ing job-shar­ing, in­cent­ives for busi­nesses to hire new work­ers, a re­vamp of the Earned In­come Tax cred­it, and a gov­ern­ment-sup­por­ted ap­pren­tice­ship pro­gram. He uses ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion to ex­pand his man­u­fac­tur­ing ini­ti­at­ive.

A newly awakened busi­ness com­munity lob­bies ag­gress­ively to head off an­oth­er debt-lim­it de­bacle and to move the House to pass a nar­row ver­sion of im­mig­ra­tion re­form that gets to a con­fer­ence and provides an av­en­ue for a com­pre­hens­ive bill that passes the Sen­ate with broad bi­par­tis­an sup­port and gets ad­op­ted with a dif­fer­ent co­ali­tion (more Ds than Rs) in the House. The busi­ness com­munity also throws its muscle be­hind a ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture pack­age, cre­at­ing an in­fra­struc­ture bank fin­anced in part via re­pat­ri­ated busi­ness profits from abroad. New Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ron Wyden works with Dave Camp and Paul Ry­an to pull to­geth­er a tax-re­form plan sim­il­ar to the one Wyden and Dan Coats, among oth­ers, sup­por­ted in the past, broad­en­ing the base, re­du­cing de­duc­tions and cred­its, and also provid­ing some re­dis­tri­bu­tion to aid lower in­come Amer­ic­ans.

Obama­care, fol­low­ing the earli­er pat­terns of Medi­care and Medi­care Part D, moves bey­ond its early glitches with bumps but in­creas­ingly smooth op­er­a­tion, with the act­ive as­sist­ance of an in­sur­ance in­dustry and oth­er health pro­viders who have a strong stake in mak­ing it work. Like Mas­sachu­setts and Rom­ney­care, the young and healthy sign up at the very last mo­ment, cre­at­ing reas­on­able risk pools. Most voters, un­af­fected dir­ectly by it, don’t em­brace it but be­gin to ig­nore it, while most who are af­fected are happy with the new op­por­tun­it­ies and sub­sidies lower­ing their costs. Health cost in­fla­tion con­tin­ues to slow, eas­ing de­fi­cit pres­sures and provid­ing a boost to the eco­nomy.

The mid-term elec­tions keep a nar­row Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity in the House, but also leave Demo­crats in the ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate, al­beit with a smal­ler mar­gin. But the con­tinu­ing ma­jor­ity en­ables Obama to fill many more judge­ships un­der the new fili­buster re­gime, and to handle the turnover in his ex­ec­ut­ive po­s­i­tions.

The en­ergy boom con­tin­ues, provid­ing op­por­tun­it­ies for Amer­ic­an en­ergy ex­ports, an­oth­er boost to the eco­nomy, and re­du­cing car­bon emis­sions as more nat­ur­al gas, clean­er coal, and al­tern­at­ive fuels enter the sys­tem, en­cour­aged by the green jobs boos­ted by the in­fra­struc­ture pro­gram. Obama achieves sig­ni­fic­ant ad­di­tion­al pro­gress on the cli­mate-change front through as­sert­ive and cre­at­ive use of ex­ec­ut­ive power. And he achieves not­able suc­cesses on the glob­al front, in Syr­ia, Ir­an, and the Middle East. If Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan re­main in tur­moil, with sec­tari­an vi­ol­ence and fre­quent bomb­ings, they hap­pen without a sig­ni­fic­ant Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary pres­ence or Amer­ic­an cas­u­al­ties, and neither coun­try des­cends back in­to the abyss.

Now the bad scen­ario. March 2014 brings an­oth­er debt-lim­it farce. Speak­er John Boehner, after blast­ing out­side rad­ic­al con­ser­vat­ive forces and shep­herd­ing through the spend­ing deal, over­com­pensates on the oth­er side by in­dul­ging the rad­ic­als with a set of un­achiev­able de­mands be­fore in­creas­ing the debt ceil­ing. This time, we ac­tu­ally breach the lim­it be­fore a severe ad­verse re­ac­tion from the glob­al mar­kets forces an ex­ten­sion. But the brief breach means an­oth­er down­grade in U.S. cred­it, which forces some pen­sion and mu­tu­al funds to di­vest their treas­ur­ies, lead­ing to ser­i­ous eco­nom­ic hic­cups, rais­ing in­terest rates and hurt­ing eco­nom­ic growth, and caus­ing even more pub­lic an­ger at the idi­ots in Wash­ing­ton.

Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress re­fuse to ex­tend un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance, leav­ing large num­bers of long-term un­em­ployed strug­gling to stay in their res­id­ences or pay their heat­ing bills. House Re­pub­lic­ans re­fuse to move any im­mig­ra­tion bill, be­liev­ing that even a nar­row bor­der-se­cur­ity bill will trig­ger a con­fer­ence and the speak­er will pull a bait-and-switch and force them to vote on a com­pre­hens­ive bill with am­nesty. Tax re­form fal­ters, with Demo­crats de­mand­ing some rev­en­ues and Re­pub­lic­ans in­sist­ing on us­ing tax re­form to cut taxes fur­ther. Even a nar­row­er cor­por­ate-tax re­form flounders when busi­nesses de­mand not just lower mar­gin­al rates but re­ten­tion of all their tax breaks.

The health re­form rol­lout con­tin­ues to be rocky and dif­fi­cult, with a new wave of glitches at the back end, mean­ing many people who signed up and thought they had in­sur­ance find out they don’t. In­surers struggle with the new risk pools, and the worst pro­jec­tions of Obama­care op­pon­ents prove ac­cur­ate — fur­ther an­ger­ing Amer­ic­ans about gov­ern­ment and dam­aging Demo­crats and Obama. The mid-term elec­tions re­tain the GOP ma­jor­ity in the House and give Re­pub­lic­ans a one-vote ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate, leav­ing Obama with an in­ab­il­ity for his fi­nal two years to fill any sig­ni­fic­ant ex­ec­ut­ive po­s­i­tions, much less judge­ships. In­vest­ig­a­tions in­to al­leged wrong­do­ing and scan­dal ramp up in both houses, with Dar­rell Issa un­leashed even more, and joined by coun­ter­parts in the Sen­ate. The new GOP ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate, work­ing with the House, pushes for more budget cuts in dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing, fur­ther erod­ing our health and sci­entif­ic-re­search in­fra­struc­ture.

Syr­ia col­lapses in­to re­gions con­trolled by dif­fer­ent fac­tions, in­clud­ing Alaw­ites, Sunni and rad­ic­al Shiites, provid­ing new ground for ter­ror­ists, and the deal with Ir­an over nuc­le­ar weapons falls apart. Kar­zai falls in Afgh­anistan, with a new Taliban re­gime emer­ging. Ir­aq’s vi­cious civil war in­tens­i­fies. Un­der pres­sure from a co­ali­tion of war-weary and an­ti­war lib­er­als and liber­tari­an isol­a­tion­ist con­ser­vat­ives, Amer­ica pulls back sig­ni­fic­antly from its role in the world, leav­ing new op­por­tun­it­ies for Rus­sia, China, and Ir­an.

Of course, the greatest like­li­hood is that we, and the pres­id­ent, will end up some­where in between. One would have to be hope­lessly pol­ly­an­nish to ex­pect these ma­jor le­gis­lat­ive achieve­ments. But there is a real chance, with some savvy and tough­ness on his part, and just a little bit of luck, that he could end up with a fi­nal three years tilted enough to the bright side that he can be sat­is­fied.

What We're Following See More »
TIME IS ‘BEST SPENT CAMPAIGNING’
Clinton Won’t Debate Sanders on Fox News
6 minutes ago
THE LATEST

Hillary Clinton will not debate Bernie Sanders on Fox News before the California primary next month. Sanders had already agreed to the debate. Clinton spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said Clinton’s time “is best spent campaigning and meeting directly with voters across California and preparing for a general election campaign that will ensure the White House remains in Democratic hands.”

Source:
TIME IS ‘BEST SPENT CAMPAIGNING’
Clinton Won’t Debate Sanders on Fox News
6 minutes ago
THE LATEST

Hillary Clinton will not debate Bernie Sanders on Fox News before the California primary next month. Sanders had already agreed to the debate. Clinton spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said Clinton’s time “is best spent campaigning and meeting directly with voters across California and preparing for a general election campaign that will ensure the White House remains in Democratic hands.”

Source:
FORMERLY THE DEPT’S TOP ATTORNEY
Transportation Sec. Names Special Adviser for Metro System
10 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has appointed a veteran legal insider with strong personal ties to the Obama administration to serve as his special adviser focused exclusively on fixing the Washington region’s troubled Metro system. Kathryn Thomson, who was expected to leave her job as the Department of Transportation’s top lawyer, instead will stay on as Foxx’s special adviser on Metro oversight." She'll start this week.

Source:
THE QUESTION
How Much Has Trump Loaned His Campaign?
20 hours ago
THE ANSWER

"More than $43 million, although the loans are loans in name only — Trump says he has no intention of recouping the cash."

Source:
NO STAFF IN OHIO
Trump Has the Poll Numbers; Does He Have the Organization?
20 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

While Donald Trump's poll numbers are steadily climbing, he "trails far behind" Hillary Clinton "in organizing in key general-election states. Ohio ... presents both ... Trump's best opportunity to carry a big swing state and reveals his team's steep logistical challenges. After winning the GOP nomination on a tight budget with a skeletal staff ... Trump doesn't have any general-election staff in the state, and senior aides in New York and Washington haven't made contact with the state Republican Party. Efforts to recruit the state's experienced operatives who helped elect" John Kasich "have so far been unsuccessful, people familiar with the matter said." Clinton "has a small team of full-time aides in Ohio."

Source:
×