the national interest

How Obama Can Have a Great Second Term

 U.S. President Barack Obama speaks after being sworn in during the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Presidential Inauguration is a strange, monarchial event that makes everybody temporarily mistake the president for the government. Now that our president has laid out his vision, and been regaled by dancing and feasts and song, the question remains, will he accomplish anything? His first two years in office saw a manic flurry of far-reaching reforms, the importance of which remain underappreciated even now. The next two years, following the Republican takeover of the House, were a nightmare of gridlock and crisis. The political configuration is unchanged, and the simplest assumption is that the results will be, too. (The Onion, as is so often the case, captures it: “List Of Politically Achievable Reforms Down To Just Three Minor Changes To Traffic Code.”)

I’ve shared that supposition, too. But enough pieces have shaken loose in the last few weeks to question it. It is very possible now to imagine a second Obama term defined by meaningful action.

The two stories that have dominated the news media’s attention so far are the fiscal showdown and gun control. Here Obama has loudly demanded solutions, but the prospects remain grim. On guns, the Newtown massacre may have jolted the nation, but it failed to overturn the dynamics that have made meaningful action impossible. The National Rifle Association is raging wildly against Obama’s modest reform proposals, and since many rural gun owners don’t follow the details of legislation, the NRA’s imprimatur is the main consideration for many members of Congress. Accordingly, Democrats are still struggling to corral their own senators behind Obama’s plan. If a single House Republican has even hinted at support, I haven’t seen it, which would make the scorecard zero down, about 120 House Republicans to go.

On the budget, the prospects for some agreement are only slightly less grim. The Republican Party refuses as a basic principle to trade higher revenue in any form for spending cuts, and Mitch McConnell recently reaffirmed that no members of his party would accept higher revenue at all. What makes the situation not completely hopeless is the sheer incoherence of the party on fiscal issues. As Byron York recently reported, Republicans don’t know what kinds of spending cuts they want. They lurch from plan to plan, with the latest being the fanciful notion that forcing Senate Democrats to pass a budget resolution will change everything. It’s possible that they will eventually figure out that having a Democratic president willing to cut Social Security and Medicare is an opportunity they should take advantage of, but don’t bet on it.

So, where is progress likely? The first is on climate change. The legislative path is totally dead. The Republican Party simply does not acknowledge unlimited dumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a public-policy problem. Polls show that Republican voters are becoming even more skeptical of climate science even as the evidence strengthens. The administration does, however, have the chance to resolve the largest outstanding piece of the climate agenda by unilaterally imposing regulatory changes on power plants through the Environmental Protection Agency. Senate Democrats are laying the groundwork to back up Obama if he does so. This is the biggest single question of Obama’s second term, the issue that will probably determine his legacy more than any others.

The strongest prospect for domestic legislation appears to be immigration reform. The key dynamic here is the desire by Republican leaders to suture off the party’s wound among Latino and Asian voters, and the figure here is Marco Rubio. In the immediate wake of the election, Rubio called for “step by step” reform rather than a comprehensive overhaul, which I read as code for opposing anything real. But I read Rubio wrong. He has backed off his opposition to comprehensive reform and has advocated policies eerily similar to Obama’s own proposal, while framing it in a way that has gained advocates on the right. Fox News, ground zero for a panicked reaction by the conservative base, seems to be climbing onboard, and Republican voters seem to be getting the message.

If Obama could pull off both these latter two — power-plant regulation and immigration reform — he would have, in combination with his first-two-year achievements, a transformative presidency. In some ways, though, it is the Republican Party’s ability to come to grips with this that might open the way.

Obama needs legislative cooperation to pass immigration reform. He does not need it to pass carbon regulation. But he probably needs the GOP to, basically, calm down. Republicans have used their control of the House to provoke an endless series of crises. If they so choose, they can continue — they can shut down the government, they can block administrators, they can begin impeachment — to create the kind of political and economic chaos that would make any progress vastly more complicated.

The necessary predicate is for Republicans to accept Obama as a legitimate president. They greeted the outset of his presidency by opposing everything and hoping to replace him in 2012, and their 2010 victory greatly encouraged their belief they could succeed. But Obama’s reelection has shaken up the party’s self-confidence. Republicans may not like Obama, but they have given up their hope that they can define his entire presidency as a massive failure. (Last summer, Romney’s campaign anticipated “not merely a 51-49 win but a run-the-table walloping that will send Obama into the history books as an undisputed calamity for America.”)

It’s significant that Republicans have let go of their dream that Obama will be the next Jimmy Carter. Matthew Continetti in the Washington Free Beacon glumly advises the party to “face the reality of Obama’s success.” National Review’s Robert Costa reported on conversations with leading Republicans in a fascinating series of tweets that lend a flavor to the changing mood toward the president:

To the extent that Republicans blame their problems on Obama’s unique political skill, they are probably understating their own predicament — Democratic Senate candidates consistently ran ahead of Obama, suggesting public disdain for the GOP has mattered more than Obama’s unique appeal. It is at least dawning on the Republican Party that the things that are obvious to them — that Obama is an extremist, that he is in over his head, that he is transforming America into Greece — are not obvious to most of America, and that provoking high-stakes confrontations with him will inevitably end in Obama winning. The confident message Obama has taken since his reelection underscores a psychological inflection point. Obama is not going away.

How Obama Can Have a Great Second Term