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
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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.

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