Obama’s Leadership Test
It was only a few months ago that Barack Obama was inaugurated for a second presidential term with all the pomp and pageantry that official Washington can muster. There was a time in this country when the early days of a second term were a heady time for a freshly re-elected president.
Think Ronald Reagan in 1985 or Lyndon Johnson 20 years earlier. It’s true that both of them came off landslide victories, while Mr. Obama only won comfortably. But it seems that winning re-election means less today than it did back then and carries less political swagger.
So far, the first 100 days of the president’s second term have been a bit of a struggle. There are signs the economy is improving, but a stubbornly high jobless rate continues to cast a shadow on the public’s general outlook. The failure to get a gun background check measure through the Senate has led to a sense of frustration and failure among some of the president’s most ardent supporters.
And now the prospect of greater U.S. involvement in Syria looms as the administration tries to firm up evidence of chemical weapons use by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
At his recent news conference, the president was asked if he still has the “juice” to get his agenda through Congress. Mr. Obama replied, “If you put it that way, maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly.” The president added that it wasn’t his job to get members of Congress to, in his word, “behave.” That, he said, is their job.
The Narrow Window
Historically, the productive time in a president’s second term comes in the first year and a half or so, before the focus shifts to the congressional midterm elections. Those midterms often prove to be a minefield for sitting presidents, a chance for voters to demonstrate their fatigue with the current administration and to signal a restlessness to move on to the next big thing, whatever that is.
You can already feel that window of opportunity to get big things through Congress starting to close. Come October and November, members of Congress will be almost completely focused on their re-election chances in November of 2014. And for those Republicans who fear a primary challenge in the upcoming cycle, they are already consumed with making sure they won’t have to fend off any well-financed challengers from the right.
In the modern political era there are relatively few periods when meaningful legislative action is likely to occur. So much time is spent on getting ready for the next election and fundraising and scoring political points that it becomes difficult for senators and House members to focus on crafting legislation that is aimed at becoming law.
Focus on Immigration
With the demise of the gun control bill, at least for now, the next major issue that will dominate Washington is comprehensive immigration reform. A lot of the recent talk sounds optimistic. Even the president said at his news conference that he is confident a bipartisan bill on immigration will make it through both the Senate and House of Representatives and to his desk for his signature. But we have a long way to go before that happens, and the administration would be wise to take to heart some of the difficult lessons from the demise of the gun bill.
One of those lessons is to build as close as possible to a super majority – 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate. That’s why the president is relying on help from the so called “Gang of Eight” in the Senate that includes Republicans Marco Rubio and John McCain. Mr. Obama realizes that even if an immigration bill can get through the Senate it might not survive in the Republican-controlled House unless it can draw the support of a sizeable group of Republicans combined with most Democrats. That is pretty much the only way compromise legislation can survive in the deeply polarized House.
Some liberals worry that whatever emerges as the final immigration bill will be less about a path to citizenship as Obama hopes than about securing the borders against illegal immigration. President Obama is already cautioning immigration advocates not to expect a perfect bill and to be ready to accept compromise.
Most Republicans acknowledge they need to do something on immigration, given their dismal showing with Hispanic and Asian-American voters in last year’s election. But there is already a strong chorus building on the right that would make the path to citizenship a long and rocky road. So both sides will have to contend with pressure groups on the far ends of the political spectrum.
Looking ahead to 2014 and 2016
The latest Quinnipiac public opinion poll found that Americans are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican in next year’s congressional midterm elections. The survey shows 41 percent favor Democratic candidates at the moment, while 37 percent say they will vote for Republican candidates. If that were to hold true, it would buck the historical norm of the president’s party losing congressional seats in the sixth year of a presidency.
The last time the president’s party gained seats in a midterm during a president’s second term was in 1998 when Bill Clinton was in the White House. Analysts said that was largely a negative reaction from the public to Republican efforts to impeach him and force him from office over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Clinton was impeached by the House, but survived when he was acquitted in the Senate.
Speaking of Clintons, the latest Quinnipiac survey also found Hillary Clinton the far-and-away frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination. Clinton got 65 percent in the latest poll, with Vice President Joe Biden way behind at 13 percent. An earlier Quinnipiac poll looking at the Republican field for 2016 found no clear frontrunner.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio led the group of potential Republican candidates with 19 percent support, followed by Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin at 17 percent, Kentucky Senator and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul at 15 percent, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie with 14 percent and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush at 10 percent.
One other Republican name to watch in the coming months is freshman Texas Senator Ted Cruz who is already drawing interest from conservative groups for a possible White House run in 2016.