President’s agenda could hinge on Democrats taking back the House

The Obama team’s high hopes after its remarkable 2012 election victory are yielding to the realization that the second term will be a long, hard slog. 

They seem to have assumed that a chastened Republican Party would have no choice except to yield ground on a broad front, and there were some signs early on that they might be right. In the wake of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s dismal showing among Latinos, Republican opposition to comprehensive immigration reform weakened, and House Speaker John Boehner maneuvered his caucus into allowing a tax increase on the wealthy.

In the midst of these developments, however, there occurred an event that no one could have anticipated — the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In my judgment, Obama had no choice but to respond strongly. But the effort to craft a legislative package while keeping the issue on the front burner consumed time and attention within the White House as well as on the president’s schedule. 

Even more significant, it put congressional Democrats in a tough spot. A number of Democratic senators up for reelection in 2014 hail from red states where a vote in favor of tougher regulations could prove fatal. Not surprisingly, they declined to bet their political futures on legislation that would probably fail in the House, whatever its fate in the Senate, even after two highly rated members of the NRA reached a bipartisan compromise on background checks. 

While Obama was right to try, the failure of gun legislation came with a political price. His leadership style was questioned anew, and his approval rating declined, which could affect his ability to push the rest of his agenda.

Prospects look better on the immigration front. Not only are the American people —independents and Republicans as well as Democrats — in favor of comprehensive reform that includes a path to citizenship, but also substantial portions of the Republican leadership have decided that the party must find a way of going along if it is to remain nationally viable. Despite the short-term effects of yet another unexpected catastrophe — the Boston Marathon bombing —the Gang of Eight was able to reach a timely agreement on a bipartisan proposal that offers reasonable chance of legislative success.

There is a danger, though, that immigration reform could be the administration’s only significant legislative accomplishment during the 113th Congress. I say this because developments in fiscal policy during the president’s first 100 days have not been promising. Although the Senate did pass an actual budget resolution for the first time in more than three years, it is hard to see how a conference committee could resolve the massive differences between the House and the Senate. 

Obama’s fiscal 2014 proposal, not released until the 80th day of his second term, has not had a significant impact in Congress, at least not yet.

Even more discouraging, the end-of-the-year resolution of the standoff over the Bush tax cuts has cast a long shadow. The administration appears to have assumed that once Republicans breached their “no new taxes” red line, they would retreat even further. The Republicans appear to have drawn the opposite conclusion: We did it once, under duress, and we’re not going to do it again. Both Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have made numerous, unequivocal statements to that effect, and it’s hard to see how they could take them back, even if they wanted to. A few Republican senators have indicated their willingness to raise more revenue as part of a package that indicates structural changes in the large entitlement programs, and the White House hopes to restart “Grand Bargain” negotiations with them. But the odds of success are low, particularly in the House, where there are fewer partners for peace, and Boehner has no incentive to allow an up-or-down vote that would deeply split his party and perhaps cost him his Speakership.

This impending standoff goes to the heart of Obama’s economic policy. The president argues, credibly, that sustainable economic growth will require a higher level of public investment. But without a Grand Bargain, the squeeze on discretionary domestic spending will intensify. (The president’s own budget proposal shows it falling from 3.7 to 2.5 percent of GDP over the next decade.)

Given these prospects, it’s easy to understand why the administration started talking so early about an all-out drive to recapture the House in 2014. But considering political history, this would be a bet against long odds. And the stakes would be huge: Obama’s second term and much of his place in history.  

Galston is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.