The ceremonies are all over and Congress has slunk back into Washington, meaning President Obama's second term can now truly begin. Obama laid out an impressive and optimistic agenda in his speech on Monday, which leads to the question of how much of this agenda will actually be passed into law. Obama faces a Senate with a Democratic edge, but not a filibuster-proof edge. Obama also faces a House with fewer Republicans in it, but still enough for a solid majority. From the viewpoint of the past two years, this seems to indicate that not much of what Obama wants will get done. But perhaps -- just perhaps, mind you -- things will be a little different for the next two years.
Obama, like all second-term presidents, will only have a short window of time to push his issues. There is one way this conventional wisdom could turn out to be wrong, but it is a long shot, at best. If Democrats can manage to hold their edge in the Senate and take control of the House in the 2014 midterm elections, then Obama could defy second-term expectations and actually get a lot done in his final two years in office. But, as I said, this should be seen as a remote possibility at this point. Remember 2010, in other words.
Realistically, Obama's only going to have anywhere from a few months to (at most) a year and a half to get anything accomplished. Which is why he is right to push his agenda immediately, as evidenced by his inaugural speech. But even he must realize that he's not going to get everything he wants, so it will be interesting to see what makes it through Congress and what dies an ignoble legislative death.
There is reason for hope. Obama begins from a position of strength, politically. His job approval ratings have been consistently over 50 percent since he was re-elected -- a range Obama hasn't seen since 2009. As mentioned, the Republican presence in both houses of Congress has shrunk. More importantly, though, the House Republicans are visibly chastened (or even "shaken") by the election's outcome.
This has already allowed Obama to rack up two early victories in the endless budget debates -- and in both, Obama got almost everything he asked for, did not give up much of anything, and held firm on some very bold negotiating tactics. Obama won the fight over the fiscal cliff, which resulted in the first rise in income tax rates in two decades, and the only thing he had to budge on was the threshold for these higher taxes. Today, the House Republicans passed a "clean" rise in the debt ceiling, after Obama swore over and over again that he "was not going to negotiate" on the issue at all. The score so far is: Obama two, House Republicans zero (to put it in sporting terms).
Of course, the Republicans only extended the debt ceiling for a few months, but this shouldn't really worry anyone, because a longer-term extension will doubtlessly be a part of any sort of grand bargain on the budget talks. The Republicans, very wisely, realized they were playing a losing game and decided to reshuffle the deadlines on the calendar. Rather than being faced with the debt ceiling crisis first, and then two budgetary crises, they have moved the debt ceiling problem to the end of the list.
Which means the next big fight Obama faces is going to be another haggle over the budget. This is going to be a tough battle, and Obama is bound to disappoint some of his supporters in the midst of it. Some sacred cows are going to wind up as hamburger, although at this point it's hard to see which ones. The real measurement of success here will be whether the House Republicans and Obama can come to terms with a budget for the next year or year-and-a-half. Long-term budget stability has been largely absent from Washington for a while now, so if any agreement can be reached perhaps it'll help the economy recover a lot faster throughout 2013 and 2014. In the long run, that will be a positive thing, no matter what such a budget agreement actually contains. One safe bet for what will be in it, though, is a long-term extension of the debt ceiling.
Budget battles are going to happen no matter what else does -- that's another safe bet. What is more interesting, though, is handicapping which of Obama's agenda items will actually see some action. There are three major initiatives that Obama is currently pushing: action on global warming, comprehensive immigration reform, and gun control. Obama did mention other issues in his speech, but these are the big three for now. Gay marriage, for instance, is in the hands of the Supreme Court right now, and no matter how they rule it's hard to see any legislative action (good or bad) happening on it immediately afterwards.
Gun control will likely be the first of these debated in Congress. Vice President Biden laid out a wide array of possible actions Congress could take on the issue, all of which Obama then backed. While the Newtown massacre did indeed shift public opinion dramatically on the overall issue, the biggest initiative is not likely to become law. An assault rifle ban is very important to some Democrats, but the way I read it is that this was included to have something to "trade away" in the negotiations. If Obama gets most of the other gun control initiatives -- closing loopholes on background checks, much better tracking of weapons, and all the other "small bore" (sorry about that pun) ideas -- then he will at least be able to say he accomplished something at the end of the day. Perhaps this is pessimistic, but the mechanics of banning "assault weapons" become very tricky, when you have to actually define what they are in legal language. And such a ban may not get universal Democratic backing anyway, so I fully expect this will be shelved at some point in exchange for support for all the other initiatives. Without such a ban, the prospects for other meaningful gun control legislation get a lot better, though, and I think that a bill will eventually pass.
The second big agenda item is immigration reform. President Obama holds virtually all the cards, politically, on this one. All Republicans who can read either demographics or polling numbers know full well that this may be their party's last chance not to go the way of the Whigs. Their support among Latinos is dismal, and even that's putting it politely. Some Republicans think they have come up with a perfect solution on how to defuse the issue, but they are going to be proven sadly mistaken in the end, I believe. The Republican plan will be announced by Senator Marco Rubio at some point, and it will seem to mirror the Democratic plan -- with one key difference. Republicans -- even the ones who know their party has to do something on the immigration problem -- are balking at including a "path to citizenship" for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already in America.
The Republicans are trying to have their cake and eat it too -- and it's not going to work. "Sure," they say, "we'll give some sort of papers to these folks, let them stay, and even let them work... but there's no need to give them the hope of ever becoming a full citizen." This just isn't going to be good enough, though. There are essentially two things citizens can do which green card holders cannot: serve on juries, and vote. The Republicans are not worried about tainted juries, in case that's not clear enough.
Republicans will bend over backwards in an effort to convince Latinos that their proposal will work out just fine for everyone. Latinos, however, aren't stupid. They know that being denied any path to citizenship equals an effort to minimize their voice on the national political stage. Which is why, as I said, Obama holds all the cards in this fight. Because this is the one issue in his agenda which Republicans also have a big vested interest in making happen. Obama and the Democrats will, I believe, hold firm on their insistence on a path to citizenship, and I think a comprehensive immigration bill will likely pass some time this year, perhaps before the summer congressional break. The path to citizenship it includes will be long, expensive and difficult (Republicans will insist on at least that), but it will be there.
On gun control, I think Obama will win a partial victory. On immigration, I think he will win an almost-total victory. On global warming, however, he's going to be disappointed. In fact, I doubt -- no matter how much "bully pulpiting" Obama does -- that any bill will even appear out of a committee in either house of Congress. This will be seen as Obama's "overreach" -- a bridge too far for the current political climate. Anyone expecting big legislative action on global warming is very likely going to be massively disappointed, to put it quite bluntly. In fact, Obama will signal this in the next few months, as he approves the Keystone XL pipeline -- much to the dismay of a lot of his supporters.
Of course, I could be wrong about any or all of these predictions. I have no special knowledge of how things will work out in Congress in the immediate future. I'm merely making educated guesses about what Obama will be able to achieve in at least the first few years of his second term. Obama has a lot of political capital right now, but that could easily change soon. The House Republicans seem almost demoralized right now, and Obama has successfully splintered them and called their bluff on two big issues already -- but they could regroup and decide to block everything the White House wants, and damn the political consequences. Unseen issues will pop up both on the domestic and foreign policy stages, as they always do. But, for now, this is my take on how the next few years are going to play out in Washington. Time will tell whether I've been too optimistic or too pessimistic on any or all of Obama's main agenda items. We'll just have to wait and see.
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