Obama’s Agenda Threatens to Divide the Democratic Party

Hillary Clinton’s ability to win the White House in 2016 depends on the president moving to the middle, not playing to his base.

Josh Kraushaar
Nov. 18, 2014, 6:09 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s biggest prob­lem over the next two years may not be com­ing from re­cal­cit­rant Re­pub­lic­ans, but from mem­bers of his own party blanch­ing at his act­iv­ist agenda over the fi­nal two years of his pres­id­ency. While the midterm elec­tion res­ults sug­ges­ted wide­spread dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the pres­id­ent’s policies, Obama non­ethe­less is plan­ning to press for­ward on sev­er­al po­lar­iz­ing de­cisions in his fi­nal two years. It could help ad­vance his leg­acy, but come at the ex­pense of the Demo­crat­ic Party’s long-term health.

Three of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s biggest agenda items—threat­en­ing a veto of bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion au­thor­iz­ing con­struc­tion of the Key­stone XL pipeline, reach­ing a nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an, and is­su­ing an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der leg­al­iz­ing mil­lions of il­leg­al im­mig­rants—di­vide Demo­crats, and unite Re­pub­lic­ans. If the pres­id­ent moves for­ward with all of them, it would ag­grav­ate fis­sures in an in­creas­ingly-di­vided Demo­crat­ic Party. And it would put Hil­lary Clin­ton, his party’s ex­pec­ted 2016 stand­ard-bear­er, in an un­com­fort­able po­s­i­tion even be­fore she an­nounces her can­did­acy. She’s already avoided tak­ing stances, if not out­right re­ject­ing the dir­ec­tion Obama is head­ing dur­ing his fi­nal two years in of­fice.

The dirty secret in Wash­ing­ton is that while Obama (rightly) blamed Re­pub­lic­ans for hold­ing po­s­i­tions to the right of the Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate, the pres­id­ent is pur­su­ing policies that are equally as far to the left.

Ap­prov­ing con­struc­tion of the long-delayed Key­stone XL pipeline may not be the most con­sequen­tial le­gis­la­tion, but it is sym­bol­ic of the lengths the ad­min­is­tra­tion has gone to avoid a postelec­tion bi­par­tis­an ac­com­plish­ment. Em­battled Sen. Mary Landrieu, on the bal­lot next month in a Louisi­ana Sen­ate run­off, has been furi­ously lob­by­ing col­leagues to ap­prove the pipeline, and won sup­port from 14 Demo­crats in an un­suc­cess­ful vote Tues­day. A new USA Today poll of adults, con­duc­ted last week, found strong sup­port for it—60 per­cent back­ing con­struc­tion of the Key­stone pipeline, with only 25 per­cent op­posed. This month, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found even 44 per­cent of Demo­crats sup­port­ing it, with 46 per­cent op­posed. When Re­pub­lic­ans take con­trol of the Sen­ate in Janu­ary, it’s ex­pec­ted to pass with at least 63 votes. 

A pres­id­ent look­ing to change the tone in Wash­ing­ton would be well-served to find com­mon ground on an is­sue that mem­bers of both parties agree on. But in­stead, he dis­missed its job-cre­at­ing be­ne­fits and left his spokes­man, Josh Earn­est, to hint at a veto last week. The pro­ject has now been delayed for six years. Giv­en that en­ergy is­sues played a con­sequen­tial role in Sen­ate con­tests from Col­or­ado to Ken­tucky—and are doom­ing the pro­spects of an oth­er­wise-re­li­able ally in Landrieu—the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s stub­born­ness on the is­sue is baff­ling. If it’s only a sym­bol­ic is­sue, why not use it to build some con­fid­ence-build­ing cap­it­al with Re­pub­lic­ans on oth­er more sig­ni­fic­ant goals?

Blame en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists, who make up a small slice of the Demo­crat­ic elect­or­ate but an out­size share of in­flu­ence, for the grid­lock. The pres­id­ent is either be­ing held host­age by his base, or is in sync ideo­lo­gic­ally with their in­terests. Either way, it’s re­mark­ably sim­il­ar to the prob­lems Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al lead­ers faced with their rank-and-file—a con­flict that led to the deeply un­pop­u­lar gov­ern­ment shut­down. (And as I wrote in last week’s column, there are clear signs that the in­com­ing Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House and Sen­ate are more prag­mat­ic than their pre­de­cessors, mak­ing the pres­id­ent’s left­ward lurch be­fore the next Con­gress is even sworn in a case of aw­ful tim­ing.)

Pub­lic opin­ion is more closely di­vided on im­mig­ra­tion re­form. Ma­jor­it­ies sym­path­ize with the ends but not the means of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­tent to is­sue an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der leg­al­iz­ing mil­lions of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. There’s a reas­on that the pres­id­ent avoided in­ter­ven­ing in the middle of the midterm cam­paign, a tell­tale ac­know­ledge­ment that a uni­lat­er­al de­cision was a ma­jor polit­ic­al loser. The latest round of polling backs that up. Among all adults sur­veyed in a new USA Today poll, a 46 per­cent plur­al­ity want the pres­id­ent to wait for the GOP Con­gress to act on im­mig­ra­tion, while 42 per­cent sup­port the pres­id­ent’s de­sire to act now. If the sample was of re­gistered voters, the mar­gin would be even great­er.

With­in the White House, the pre­vail­ing polit­ic­al sup­port for the sweep­ing ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion is two­fold: Win back en­thu­si­asm from His­pan­ic voters, and bait Re­pub­lic­ans in­to op­pos­ing the move in the most self-de­feat­ing way pos­sible. It’s a risky polit­ic­al de­cision, one that down­plays the fact that the White House is run­ning against pub­lic opin­ion on the is­sue and spend­ing the little polit­ic­al cap­it­al Obama has left in do­ing so. There’s hardly a guar­an­tee that His­pan­ics would re­spond to the ex­ec­ut­ive or­der by turn­ing out for Hil­lary Clin­ton, and it could spark a back­lash from blue-col­lar voters mi­grat­ing away from the party. Over one-quarter of Demo­crats op­pose uni­lat­er­al ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion, a sig­ni­fic­ant enough minor­ity to cause the party fu­ture prob­lems. In the mean­time, it risks fore­clos­ing oth­er op­por­tun­it­ies for work­ing with the GOP Con­gress on trade, tax re­form, or even a scaled-back ver­sion of im­mig­ra­tion re­form in the fu­ture. Again, Obama is play­ing to the base over reach­ing out to the middle.

Reach­ing a nuc­le­ar agree­ment with Ir­an, the pres­id­ent’s lead­ing for­eign policy pri­or­ity, threatens to pro­voke the biggest rup­ture with his own party. Lib­er­al al­lies of the pres­id­ent who are strong sup­port­ers of Is­rael, in­clud­ing Sens. Chuck Schu­mer, Robert Men­en­dez, Kirsten Gil­librand, and Ben Cardin, would likely join with Re­pub­lic­ans in ex­press­ing op­pos­i­tion if a nuc­le­ar deal fell short of dis­arm­ing the re­gime. Even an­oth­er delay in the ne­go­ti­ations would likely spark bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion call­ing for re­newed sanc­tions. Un­der Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship, tough-on-Ir­an le­gis­la­tion that was blocked un­der Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id would be open for a vote, one that could di­vide the Demo­crat­ic Caucus. (In 2014, 17 Sen­ate Demo­crats sponsored the Men­en­dez-Kirk bill ad­voc­at­ing for tough Ir­an sanc­tions if an agree­ment isn’t reached.)

While pub­lic polling shows sup­port for dip­lomacy, there are plenty of polit­ic­al risks if a fi­nal agree­ment were to fall short of dis­arm­ing the Ir­a­ni­an re­gime. The data sug­gest voters are very dis­trust­ful of Ir­an, but are keep­ing an open mind about the ne­go­ti­ations cur­rently tak­ing place. If an agree­ment al­lows Ir­an to pre­serve its cap­ab­il­ity to build nuc­le­ar weapons, however, pub­lic opin­ion could grow neg­at­ive quickly.

After Obama reached an in­ter­im agree­ment to loosen sanc­tions for Ir­a­ni­an par­ti­cip­a­tion in nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­ations, Quin­nipi­ac found a 46 per­cent plur­al­ity op­pos­ing the deal, with 44 per­cent ap­prov­ing. One-quarter of Demo­crats dis­ap­proved. An earli­er ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post sur­vey in Novem­ber 2013 found wide­spread sup­port for a com­pre­hens­ive deal with Ir­an, but deep skep­ti­cism that the agree­ment would pre­vent Ir­an from ob­tain­ing nuc­le­ar weapons. Mean­while, a Janu­ary 2014 poll con­duc­ted by vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Mark Mell­man, on be­half of the pro-Is­rael ad­vocacy group The Is­rael Pro­ject, found large ma­jor­it­ies of Amer­ic­ans dis­ap­prov­ing of the pres­id­ent’s policies to­wards Ir­an, and sup­port for con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al of any fi­nal deal.

Pres­id­ent Obama has giv­en lip ser­vice to be­ing the reas­on­able adult in Wash­ing­ton, but his ac­tions have sug­ges­ted oth­er­wise. He’s al­ways pre­ferred to blame House Re­pub­lic­ans for in­transigence rather than ali­en­at­ing his base to com­prom­ise. Even a former White House ad­viser told The Huff­ing­ton Post that the pres­id­ent viewed the 2010 elec­tion res­ults as primar­ily a com­mu­nic­a­tions chal­lenge, not a sign to mod­er­ate his agenda. “The pres­id­ent does own some re­spons­ib­il­ity for not be­ing able to crack that code [of Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion],” the aide said. “But it is kind of his job. If it’s any­body’s job to ex­ist in that real­ity and still make pro­gress, it is the pres­id­ent’s.”

Based on his postelec­tion com­ments, it doesn’t seem that Pres­id­ent Obama has learned any les­sons from his party’s latest midterm wipeout, either. The across-the-board GOP sweep was a re­sponse to wide­spread dis­sat­is­fac­tion over his policies. Obama’s fo­cus on the voters who “chose not to par­ti­cip­ate in the pro­cess” con­veni­ently ig­nores the fact that Demo­crats spent more than $60 mil­lion to turn out less-re­li­able voters, but lost des­pite the ex­pens­ive ef­forts. Midterm elec­tions al­ways fea­ture lower turnout than in pres­id­en­tial years. Obama’s the first pres­id­ent to blame that for his party’s de­feat.

This time, the con­sequences to polit­ic­al deni­al are more sig­ni­fic­ant. Dur­ing the 2010 midterms, the pres­id­ent still had a reelec­tion cam­paign to re­strain his act­iv­ist im­pulses. Now that he’s most in­ter­ested in leg­acy-build­ing, the Demo­crat­ic Party’s for­tunes be damned.

Hil­lary Clin­ton now has to worry about the polit­ic­al im­plic­a­tions of Obama’s fi­nal two years in of­fice. She’s already cri­tiqued the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Ir­a­ni­an dip­lomacy, and has dodged ques­tions over her po­s­i­tion on Key­stone and wheth­er she sup­ports an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der on im­mig­ra­tion. Obama’s team in­sists they’re do­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton a fa­vor with their ploys to ex­cite the base be­fore the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. She doesn’t seem to see things the same way.

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