Big Agenda but Time is Fleeting
If you look at Washington politics as a poker game, President Obama went all in this week. His second inaugural address caught some by surprise with a more edgy, partisan vibe that runs counter to the tradition that the president’s maiden speech be full of lofty rhetoric and vague generalities.
Four years ago, the newly elected Mr. Obama emphasized common ground and the need to set aside petty recriminations in the era of sharply polarized national politics. But after four years of stiff Republican opposition to most of what he tried to do, it looks like a different, more combative President Obama has emerged for his second term.
In his inaugural address, Mr. Obama said that on a range of issues, “decisions are now upon us and we cannot afford to delay.” He added, “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.” Breaking a bit with tradition, the president specifically mentioned several areas of focus, including action on climate change and protecting entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Mr. Obama added that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
Less Constrained by Politics
One lasting image of the inauguration was a brief moment after the swearing-in ceremony that was captured on television. The president was leaving the inaugural platform and headed up a staircase into the Capitol building when he turned around and paused to look back at the huge crowd stretching down the Mall. “I want to take a look one more time. I’m not going to see this again.” This is a man who knows the sands are already slipping out of the hourglass and that there is no time to waste. Safely re-elected by a comfortable margin and never having to worry about running again, Mr. Obama is giving off the aura of someone willing to push hard for what he wants and less open to compromise than he was during his first term.
Many Republicans were clearly put off by the tone of the president’s inaugural address and dismissed it as a liberal screed. This may encourage some conservatives to draw their own line in the sand and simply refuse to consider much in the way of compromise as the second term begins to play out. Besides, many Republicans believe they only have to stall a year or so before the president’s second term momentum will begin to slow. Second term presidents usually suffer congressional losses in the midterm (2014), and by that time many Republicans will be looking toward the next presidential election in 2016 and will consider Mr. Obama a “lame duck.”
The recent history of second term presidents is not encouraging. Richard Nixon was forced to resign by the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan’s legacy was tarnished by Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton nearly got himself thrown out of office by having an extra-marital affair. George W. Bush got bogged down in Iraq.
After a difficult first term, conventional political wisdom would suggest Mr. Obama seek out compromise and reconciliation with Republicans in order to have any hope of getting things done. But at least early on, this president seems determined to try to gain as much leverage as he can from his re-election triumph and keep Republicans on the defensive.
The decision by House Republican leaders to put off a fight over raising the federal government’s debt limit for a few more months suggests they are getting a little smarter about picking their battles. House Speaker John Boehner wants a clean fight with the president and congressional Democrats over cutting the budget and the size of government. Boehner realized that getting tangled up in another debate over the debt ceiling could lead to a government default, weaken the economy and put Republicans in a very risky political position.
Instead, Republicans will focus on a fight over budget cuts in March, when the temporary agreement to delay massive domestic and military cuts expires. They believe at that point they will be in a stronger position to pressure the president to accept significant cuts.
But Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, remain split over budget battle tactics. Cooler heads in the Republican caucus remain wary of taking on the president directly in the wake of his re-election and public approval rating, which is in the high 50’s. But conservative firebrands in the House are still itching for a fight over the budget and will push for a confrontation sooner rather than later, citing polling and pressure from within their own congressional districts for a showdown with Mr. Obama.
Rumblings of 2016
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was busy defending her department’s response before Senate and House committees on the Libya attack last September that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. At times emotional and agitated, Clinton parried criticism from several Republican senators, including Senators John McCain (Arizona), Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) and Rand Paul (Kentucky). There was also a somewhat milder exchange between the secretary and Republican Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who many see as a possible presidential contender in 2016.
Speaking of the next presidential election, Clinton’s testimony on the Benghazi attack marks the final chapter in her tenure as secretary of state. One Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Barbara Boxer of California, expressed the hope that this would not be the end of Clinton’s career in public life, taken by some as a clear encouragement for her to run for president in 2016. Mrs. Clinton is now 65 and the other leading Democrat for the nomination four years from now is Vice President Joe Biden, who is 70.
A lot can happen in four years and who knows if either Clinton or Biden can maintain enthusiasm levels for their potential candidacies over an extended period. Besides, there is a whole new generation of Democrats waiting in the wings, trying to figure out if they should make a bid for the White House in 2016 or defer to Clinton and Biden and wait for another time. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick are already getting buzz about considering a run in 2016, though they will clearly wait a bit to get a better idea of the intentions of Clinton and Biden.
It’s already clear that both major parties will be due for some sort of a shake-up in 2016. Clinton should theoretically be a strong contender, especially among women Democrats who believe it will be their turn after Mr. Obama’s successful quest to become the first African-American president. But if she declines to run, I don’t think the prospect of a Biden candidacy will scare off too many other Democrats who might decide their time has come to at least make a run at the White House.
The Republican prospects are even more uncertain. Mitt Romney has already faded from view and 2016 will offer opportunities for a varied field of potential contenders to test the waters. In addition to the previously mentioned Rubio, don’t forget New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who hit 74 percent approval in the latest Quinnipiac public opinion poll. Twenty-sixteen might also be a chance for former Florida governor Jeb Bush to insert himself into the mix, hoping voters are a little more open to the idea of another Bush in the White House.
Tea Party favorite Rand Paul is already getting some attention from conservative activists who want a true believer in the race. And don’t forget Romney’s running mate from last year, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan. Ryan may take the lead in the upcoming budget showdown with the White House, though that would seem to carry with it as much risk as reward if the proposals he puts forward are seen as too draconian.