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Obama 2.0: Breaking the Impasse

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Within the first quarter of his final term, Barack Obama has chalked up two frustrating defeats: the sting of across the board budget cuts, followed by the bite of failed gun sales reform. And, now the specter of a triple faced scandal threatens to engulf his presidency.

This week, his administration has come under fire for its alleged failings over the Benghazi attack, the IRS's extra scrutiny into groups related to the Tea Party, and the seizure of phone records at the Associated Press.

Talk of a "second term curse" has already taken hold in the media as the White House tries to get ahead of the controversies before it derails its final term agenda.

And, while the president does not appear to be implicated in any of it, the confident after-glow of last year's convincing reelection certainly does seem like a long time ago. But, as Obama himself reminded a reporter at the end of last month: "Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated."

The president's recent setbacks cut a stark contrast to the opening flurry of his maiden term. Under a Democratic House, he was able to achieve more than any U.S. leader since Franklin Roosevelt. But, now that the conservatives are in charge, the difference is plain to see. And, as they control Congress, whilst the Democrats rule the Senate, this political standoff is here to stay.

In a bid to break the impasse, the president has tried to court the opposition through the preferred back room channels on Capitol Hill. But, no amount of cajoling, coaxing or wheedling has turned them.

Of course, Obama's critics are quick to point the finger of blame at him, arguing that he is no Lyndon Johnson. They say that he in spite of all his inspiring rhetoric, he lacks the political mastery required to whip this coalition government into shape.

But, as Richard McGregor points out in the Financial Times, the comparison is not a fair one as Johnson worked with a more cooperative Congress where over a third were considered to be "moderates, or persuadable. No such bloc exists today."

Moreover, as Senator Pat Toomey recently revealed, several Republicans blocked last month's gun bill, not because they are passionate about the second amendment, but because they "did not want to be seen helping the president."

The perils of ruling with this Republican-controlled House are clear: no longer licking their wounds after last year's electoral defeat, many conservatives are already busy inflicting their own. Moreover, their wrath isn't just reserved for the president. Frustrated by their own party's failings, some Republicans have even started turning on each other.

Senator Ted Cruz from Texas recently dismissed other members of his party as "squishes." The move came a few months after he heckled Chuck Hagel during his hearing as defense secretary, saying that Iran was celebrating the decorated Vietnam veteran's nomination.

Immigration is the one issue not stymied by the deadlock. A bipartisan bill is already making the rounds with much support from the Republican side. But, as 70 percent of Hispanics backed Obama in the last election, it's political survival that's driving them. They either endorse the bill or face electoral suicide.

In the words of Jim Cooper, a democratic congressman from Tenneesse: "We have an unwiedly form of government. Don't blame Obama for our constitution."

Looking at the stock market, the benefit of his presidency is clear. The S&P 500 hit record highs earlier this month following a strong jobs report which points to a determined recovery. And, on Tuesday, U.S. debt fell to its lowest level since the financial crisis began five years ago. After inheriting the worst economy since the Great Depression, Obama's economic achievements are not to be sniffed at.

But, "it's the quagmire of domestic policy that grabs the most attention and this is where Obama's legacy is most likely to be settled," writes Richard McGregor in the FT. "And, through this narrower lens, his challenges in extracting wins out of a hostile political landscape look more difficult."

Given the current state of play, or lack thereof, both side are already looking ahead to next year's mid term elections. They hope that the American people will punish the other party for the impasse.

Democrats want to win back the House so that they can pass everything from gun control to reining in carbon emissions. Meanwhile, Republicans hope to regain the Senate and tighten their stranglehold on Obama's presidency. And, as the historical odds are on their side, this administration will have to draw up a new game plan if it hopes to survive.

They are already trying out a new strategy using the same formula it used to win last year's presidential race. In a spin off from its 2012 campaign, it has formed a grassroots advocacy group called Organizing for Action.It hopes to get widespread public support for Obama's second term agenda in order to gain traction with Congress. And, although this grassroots strategy worked to brilliant effect during last year's election, whether it proves to be an effective form of government remains to be seen.

But, this idea of empowering the people to bring about change is gaining momentum in the US. Earlier this month, Obama's biggest democratic donors, including 150 high profile figures, signed a letter urging the president to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

It came a few weeks after General Motors added its signature to a declaration calling on the government to take more action against climate change. Endorsed by 40 companies including Intel and eBay, it hopes to eventually drive a climate law through Congress.

Given the specter of controversy that can dog a president after reelection, it's crucial that Obama keeps a firm grip on his second term agenda. Losing sight of it could lead to failure. And, in this hostile political climate, the rise of more public action could help to transform that agenda into reality. As John F. Kennedy famously once said: "Ask not what your country can do for you; but what you can do for your country."