Almost a full year into his second term, President Barack Obama has lurched from one disaster to the next and has little to show for his thumping of Mitt Romney last November. However, with a more modest agenda and greater managerial competence, Obama has plenty of time to salvage his presidency.
In his second inaugural address, Obama laid out a sweeping liberal vision, emphasizing a broad theme of equal opportunity and endorsing an activist government to achieve it. His vision wasn’t wrong – in fact, it was inspiring – but a skilled politician like Obama should surely have realized that he would fall flat maneuvering such policies through a Republican-controlled House and a Senate dominated by conservative Democrats.
The first blow came in April, when a bipartisan, Obama-backed compromise on background checks for firearms purchasers – perhaps the mildest possible form of restriction on gun ownership – failed to clear a 60-vote hurdle in the Senate. Although National Rifle Association intransigence made passing any meaningful reform difficult, Democratic defections that sank the Manchin-Toomey proposal spoke to Obama’s difficulty working with Congress.
Still reeling from that defeat, the administration was rocked over the summer with Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA surveillance program, PRISM.
With lingering memories of 9/11 and the lack of privacy inherent in ubiquitous social media, outrage was diffuse, and Obama struggled to explain highly classified programs to an even more skeptical public.
With little help from Obama, senators from both parties overwhelmingly adopted immigration reform in late June, but the bill’s prospects in the House were immediately bleak. An ambitious package of climate change proposals the president unveiled at the same time was quickly marked dead on arrival in each house of Congress.
The West Wing was also preoccupied with foreign policy challenges, not least of which was the ongoing civil war in Syria. With Americans overwhelmingly opposed to intervention, Obama was forced to alter his “red line” rhetoric, although the ultimate solution crafted by Secretary of State John Kerry helped save face and will hopefully spare Syrians from more chemical attacks.
Many observers expected Obama to emerge stronger from the 14-day government shutdown and debt limit brinksmanship in October, which was widely blamed on congressional Republicans. That proved wishful thinking, as Democrats were unable to reap any political rewards because of the biggest disaster of them all: healthcare.gov.
For the better part of two months, the oxygen has been sucked out of Washington by hand-wringing over the malfunctioning website of Obama’s signature domestic policy. Although the website now appears to be mostly fixed, the president’s last remaining strength – his credibility – has evaporated.
Today, the popular view seems to be that, no matter how much voters personally like him and his family, Obama is less than honest and still incapable of getting anything done. With three years remaining, is he consigned to leave office as detested as George W. Bush? Or can he depart Washington on Jan. 20, 2017, riding as high as Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan?
Although it’s impossible to rule out the former, the latter is within reach for the president and his team.
Last week’s steps toward a definitive deal on Iranian nuclear enrichment show that Obama can still accomplish big things, and it gives hope for more diplomatic triumphs in the world’s most troubled region.
At home, the president is likely to be able to take credit for whatever budget compromise emerges from negotiations between Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Obama would also be wise to take House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) up on his proposal to adopt immigration reform on a piecemeal basis, though we can be confident that Senate Democrats will not pass legislation that does not include the most important components of successfully overhauling the system.
Filibuster reform – the Senate’s overturning of the so-called “nuclear option” last month – gives the president the opportunity to get the best people into the government and the courts, which is especially useful in forming a legacy.
Finally, the president should continue to actively campaign for Democratic candidates on 2014 ballots, something he has already been doing more aggressively than he did in 2010.
By keeping his 2012 coalition intact next year, Obama will be able to deal with a friendlier Congress for the final two years of his term. Combined with an economy that is growing slowly but steadily, strong Democratic performance in 2014 will allow the 44th president to claim an even greater space in the history books.
Evan Hollander is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final appearance of State of Play this semester.
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