Snares strewn on Obama’s path as he pushes second-term agenda

President Obama has been on the offensive since his reelection but landmines lie in his path that could detonate in the short and medium term, depleting his political capital and perhaps even undermining his legacy.

With memories of his November win over Mitt Romney still fresh, Obama routed Republicans in the fiscal-cliff deal just concluded. Democrats are now readying for battle on everything from the debt ceiling to gun control.

ADVERTISEMENT
But as he prepares to deliver his second inaugural address next week, Obama knows he faces risks as well as opportunities on a host of fronts, from the economy to immigration reform to Iran.

There are other unresolved issues before him, too, including sequestration and a House Speaker who has said he will no longer be at the negotiating table.

Obama, who has already angered Republicans by giving short shrift to their concerns, runs the danger of overreaching on certain issues and trying to squeeze too hefty an agenda through a tight window in the second term.

He would not be the first to do so. President George W. Bush spent the early phase of his second term trying to overhaul Social Security. The plan failed, not least because the effort was undertaken during the bleakest days of the Iraq war.


The president currently has leverage and has two big moments coming up — his inauguration and February’s State of the Union address — to lay the groundwork for the next four years.

Still, overpromising could be perilous.

“He has definitely made some big promises and could be dealt a few setbacks, especially given the weighty and controversial issues he’s dealing with in the next term,” said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

Republicans, well-aware of the difficult road that Obama faces, say the next four years are about producing measurable results.

“If the economy turns around; if healthcare reform lowers costs and improves care; if Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other hot spots are contained; and if he cuts the deficit substantially, then he’ll have fulfilled his promises,” said Republican strategist Ken Lundberg. “Anything short of that leaves him with an optimistic but hollow legacy.”

Even Democrats, including some who have worked for him, worry that Obama could be diverted from the policy agenda that underpins his popularity if he attempts major reform of immigration and gun rights.

“The biggest landmine is veering away from what he campaigned on, which is the strengthening of the middle class,” said one top Democratic strategist.

“There is a temptation to go after a lot of different things —and why not?  He’s not up for reelection again. But getting the economy humming again has to be the number one priority all the time.”

The strategist acknowledged that Obama has demonstrated the capacity to deal with numerous important issues at once — to “walk and chew gum at the same time,” as the president likes to put it. But Obama can also lose focus.

“We did the Recovery Act right out of the gate but he didn’t spend a lot of time explaining it,” the strategist said. “And then we  moved to energy and then healthcare and people didn’t see a connection to their pocketbooks.”

Speaking of healthcare, Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said that one of the biggest immediate challenges for the president would be the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The effort will likely shape his legacy, Simmons added.

“They have to get it right. That’s a priority, especially to the constituencies who helped get him elected.”

Simmons also said he was hearing indications that many segments of the president’s base — from women’s groups to African Americans — would be more vocal about the issues dearest to them. While some grumbled quietly during the first term about goals that had not been met, they did not want to mar Obama’s chances of reelection by being vociferous.

But with the president safely ensconced in the White House for his second term “you’ll really hear people speaking up about issues,” Simmons said.

Gun control could be a particularly vexing issue for Obama. While he is determined to put what he has called his “full weight” behind new legislation, Obama runs the risk of pushing too hard and coming up short.

“Given the outrage and emotion over the Newtown tragedy, the president has the high ground,” Lundberg said. “But if he comes out too brash with a proposal that’s viewed as too lop-sided, far-flung and infringing on constitutional rights, he risks losing any chance at convincing Congress to address the real issues behind such violent acts: mental health and the ongoing glorification of gun violence.”

Democrats seem to understand as much.

“The Second Amendment is a values issue to some Americans the way ‘choice’ is to others,” Simmons said. “The president has to walk a fine line of doing enough that’s consequential but not so much that it causes a huge political backlash.”

Simmons added, “You don’t know if you’ve crossed the line till you’re over it. There’s not a five-mile warning marker.”

A former administration official agreed.

“It’s a tricky issue,” the former administration official said. “Something’s got to happen on gun control. If some form of gun control isn’t passed, it will be viewed as a failure of the system. But there’s a danger to politicians, including President Obama, on this issue.”

The other hot button issue before Obama is immigration reform. White House officials have said they will present their plan in the coming weeks but Obama — who worked on the subject when he was a senator — will have to move quickly if he wants to see a measure pass.

“There’s a limited window for the president to act on something this controversial,” said Lundberg, who worked for former Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) on the immigration issue in 2007. “Given his … poor standing with Speaker Boehner and vulnerable members concerned about the 2014 elections, seeing anything move through the House anytime soon is unlikely.”

Looking farther ahead, MacManus and other political observers say it will grow increasingly difficult for Obama to get much done when he moves into the third year of his second term.

“The trickiness comes at the midterms and that’s where the franticness comes into play,” MacManus said. “He’ll be concerned about his legacy and in a hurry to get things done that he didn’t get done.

“But all presidents do this,” she added. “It’s not just Obama.”