Narrow Window to Act
As the curtain rises on Barack Obama’s second term, where’s the love from Republicans? After all, when you look at what he did in his first term, he's he’s one of them.
Like Richard Nixon, he raised taxes on the rich and cut them for everyone else. Like Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency, Obama fought for cleaner air and water. Like Ronald Reagan, he backed tough measures to curb gun violence. Like Reagan, he dreamed of a cap and trade plan to help the environment (Reagan’s dream came true with a global treaty to save the ozone layer in 1987). He copied Mitt Romney’s healthcare plan and George W. Bush’s immigration plan. And like Bush, he ordered a troop surge to gain strategic advantage in an unpopular war – before cutting a deal to end it. And like Reagan and Bush (and Dick Cheney, who said deficits don’t matter) the debt exploded.
Yet Republicans say what a commie! Fascist! Socialist! Tyrant!
Their distaste for Obama’s first term policies extends to his overseas policies as well. He’s accused of weakness on North Korea and Iran, two charter members of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” Bush admitted both Pyongyang and Tehran to this exclusive club in his 2002 State of the Union (Iraq was the third member of this troika) and issued this explicit warning:
“The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.”
Yet in October 2006, Bush allowed North Korea to successfully test a nuclear weapon. He also did little to stop Iran from marching ahead with its own nuclear program. But Bush did stop someone: Israel. In 2008, he rejected a request from then Prime Minister Olmert for bunker-buster bombs needed to hit Iranian nuclear targets buried deep underground. Bush also denied an Israeli request to fly over U.S.-controlled Iraqi airspace on its proposed raid. But it’s Obama, who inherited both of these nuclear messes, who is called weak and disrespectful of our key allies.
But I digress.
Of course, I’m joking about Obama being a Republican. But the joke’s on the GOP. They have moved so far to the right in recent years that they can’t recognize how centrist most of the president’s policies – taken from past Republican playbooks - really are. On big issues like immigration, climate change and reducing gun violence, and on issues that effect important voting blocs, like Hispanics, students and women, Republicans today are simply out of touch. This dynamic looms large over the second term, and the president will take advantage wherever he can.
And there’s this: Barack Obama is not the same president he was four years ago. It has been said that no job can truly prepare one for the presidency, and given Obama’s thin resume and inclination for hubris (a trait all presidents have), it was inevitable that there would be growing pains. He made mistakes: he boasted about how he would stop the oceans from rising and cut the deficit in half. His advisors said unemployment wouldn’t go beyond 8 percent. Wrong, wrong and wrong.
But, like all presidents, Obama has learned on the job. He has acquired a better sense of power and how it is applied in pursuit of a goal. He has a more realistic understanding of the entrenched forces that are working against him. This understanding, and the 332 electoral votes he won on November 6th, have given him a backbone. He always had one, but it wasn’t evident because he spent much of the past four years bending over backwards to accommodate Republicans (with the major exception of healthcare, which was shoved down the GOP’s throat). Obama has wisened up. He’s more disdainful of the Republicans who spent the last four years blocking him at every turn.
What does all this mean for the president’s agenda? Take one of his big second term goals: immigration reform. The president knows – as do Republicans – that he won the Hispanic vote by 44 percentage points, 8 percentage points more than in 2008. Obtuse, arrogant policies doomed Republicans from the beginning, and given the fact that Hispanics are not only the fastest-growing voter bloc in the country but the youngest, it is Republican policies that will have to change if they hope to reverse this trend in the 2014 midterms – now looming – and 2016. Obama has little reason to play nice with the GOP on this one.
Republicans are already changing. During the year-end tax fight, Obama’s divide-and-conquer strategy peeled off 85 Republican votes in the House, shattering what had been a rock-solid GOP caucus. 85 votes. Among those voting the president’s way: former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Then last week Republicans caved on the debt ceiling, stepping back from threats to shut down the government. Look for Obama to keep up the pressure on the sequester, the big spending cuts that were kicked down the road until March and on other fiscal matters as well.
The president is holding the best cards he has held in four years. But political winds are fickle. Obama and the Democrats won in 2008, received a “shellacking” (his word) in 2010 before rebounding last November. He begins his new term with a modest 52 percent approval rating (Real Clear politics average of all recent polls), below Bill Clinton’s 60 percent in 1997 and Ronald Reagan’s 62 percent in 1985. In fact, Obama is right about where George W. Bush was when his second term began in 2005. The numbers are worse on the one issue that his administration will ultimately be judged on: the economy. The New York Times reported last week that just 46 percent of Americans approve of the president’s ability to handle the economy; 49 percent don’t.
Obama also knows that presidents tend to lose ground in midterms, and that after 2014, he will be a lame duck. He has a narrow window in which to act.