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.

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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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