Obama’s time for action ticks away

Former administration officials and Democratic strategists in touch with the White House say Obama say has to make something of the next three months before people put him in the rear-view mirror.

“Once 2014 rolls around, people are going to care less and less about his legislative priorities and they’ll have their sights set on the next big thing,” one former administration official said.

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“They need a shift, and it needs to be quick if they’re planning on getting anything done,” said the official, who described the next three months as decisive.

GOP critics of the president argue he’s already a lame duck.

“From a legislative standpoint, he is a lame duck,” said Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to former President George W. Bush.

Fratto noted that Obama couldn’t rally Senate liberals to support his preferred pick for the Federal Reserve, former economic adviser Larry Summers.

“That was a pretty strong sign that there’s not a way to carry Congress through any of his legislative issues,” Fratto said. 

With the exception of immigration, most of the president’s priorities have stalled, he added.

The former administration official said there’s still time for Obama to turn it around, but agreed there are days when it feels as though lame-duck status has already begun for Obama.

“It’s sad but that’s the current nature of politics — short attention spans,” the official said.

When Obama won a second term, senior advisers privately estimated that Obama had between nine months and a year to have a successful second term, maybe even less. 

As time rolls on, they knew Obama would have to compete with the midterm elections in 2014 and a media culture obsessed with the seemingly more compelling 2016 presidential cycle. The Republican National Committee, for example, has begun to send political reporters a string of 2016-related emails, as they did on Monday.  

Asked about his second-term plans earlier this year, Obama seemed well-aware of his time constraints, telling a local television reporter that he had about a year to move forward with his legislative priorities.

“I’d like to get as much stuff done as quickly as possible,” Obama said in an interview with KGO-TV, an ABC affiliate in San Francisco. “Even though I’m just starting my second term, I know that ... once we get through this year, then people start looking at the midterms. And after that, they start thinking about presidential elections.”

Supporters of the White House hope the president can use the upcoming budget battles as a pivot to turn his second term around.

“The budget battles are not so much for his legacy, but they provide a chance to get their wheels out of the mud,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. “If he’s able to get this done well, he’s able to reposition himself for the next six months before people start to look past him.”

Second terms are vexing for presidents — especially in the first year, said Martin Sweet, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University. But Obama’s has been particularly rough, Sweet said, because he’s been “penned in” by the political structure.

“There’s really not a whole lot he can do at this point,” Sweet said. “Presidents can’t really do a lot in their second term, and that’s what we’re seeing.”

Fratto said what Obama needs to do is “defend the gains” he made in the first term, such as the implementation of his signature healthcare law. But, he added that with Obama’s legislative proposals looking grim, he should turn his attention to helping Democrats win the House in 2014.

“That’s the only way he can turn around the second term, unless [congressional] Republicans help him by doing crazy things like shutting down the government,” Fratto said.

Supporters say Obama still has it in him to turn the tide, especially if he returns to his fiery campaign mode, like he did at an event in Kansas City, Mo., last week.

“He’s not a lame duck,” Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said. “He still had a lot of tools left in the toolbox and may find some unwilling allies who will do business with the Democratic Party.

Simmons said the White House “could do a better job laying out what the agenda will be and fighting hard for it.” At the same time, while the budget battles and implementation of health aren’t particularly “sexy,” as Simmons put it, Obama can gain some ground there.

But Sweet predicted that while Obama would secure smaller victories through regulatory action, “the decks are stacked against him.”

“It’s a tough road,” he said of second-term Obama. “You pick your battles, you bide your time and you start planning your [presidential] library.”


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