Obama's risky midterm game

Obama's risky midterm game
© Getty Images

President Obama is playing a risky game as the midterm elections draw near.

The administration appears willing to forge ahead without Congress’s acquiescence on polarizing topics such as climate change and immigration reform.


That could motivate the Democratic base ahead of November. It might also enrage some Republicans to the point where they overplay their hand, threatening impeachment proceedings or a government shutdown that could redound to Democrats’ benefit.

But Obama’s tactics could just as easily harm his party’s hopes as help them. Vulnerable Democrats have begged the president to hold off, worried that his unilateral moves could alienate crucial swing voters or rally Republican base voters to the polls.

The president is now facing a complicated political calculus, in which he must try to accurately gauge how to balance his short-and long-term policy priorities and political ambitions in the coming weeks.

"The rewards, obviously, are he might get something done on an important policy matter in an area where Congress has proven unwilling to move," said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. "The downside is that the farther you go, the harder the pushback is likely to be, and that's particularly risky for candidates running in conservative districts or states.”

Publicly, at least, the White House maintains that electoral considerations don’t consume much of the president's attention as he approaches policy decisions.

"What the president wants to do is, he wants to solve problems," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday, maintaining that Obama hoped to foster "a legitimate fact-based debate."

But signs the White House is grappling with how to navigate an increasingly complex political environment are evident.

After indicating for much of the summer that the president was looking to announce executive actions on immigration reform before the midterm elections, administration sources have now told multiple media outlets that it might be later in the year before he makes his move. On Friday, Earnest refused to commit the president to rolling out his administrative actions before Election Day.

"I just don’t have any additional information to share with you about what that time frame is," Earnest said.

The hesitation comes after vulnerable Democrats — including Sens. Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorBottom line Everybody wants Joe Manchin Cotton glides to reelection in Arkansas MORE (Ark.) and Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganInfighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms Democrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control Biden's gun control push poses danger for midterms MORE (N.C.) — warned the president against taking executive action.

The White House also backed away from quick action on climate change after a trial balloon got shot down.

First, a story appeared in The New York Times about the administration possibly bypassing the Senate on a new international climate change agreement. In essence, the proposed deal would have involved nations pledging to cut emissions. But the pledge would have been voluntary, which would have obviated the need for Senate approval.

The idea drew immediate criticism, including from Rep. Nick RahallNick Joe RahallOn The Trail: The political losers of 2020 We shouldn't allow politics to impede disaster relief Break the cycle of partisanship with infant, child health care programs MORE, a West Virginia Democrat locked in a tough reelection battle, who said it was "fruitless" to negotiate an agreement "with the rest of the world when it cannot even muster the support of the American people."

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki promptly issued a statement calling concern “premature” because “not a word of the new climate agreement currently under discussion has been written.”

Still, Democratic strategists and political analysts suggest the White House is likely to favor action over hitting the pause button on the president’s agenda, even if the latter choice might be more beneficial to vulnerable lawmakers.

“Members of Congress who are running in a tough district might have to answer that, but in general the Democratic base voters want to see the presidential action,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “The people who don’t like the president still won’t like the president, whether he acts or not.”

Nor has President Obama proven particularly “mindful” of his allies on Capitol Hill in the past, Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer said, pointing to efforts like the push for health care reform.

“The White House looks pessimistically at what is going to happen in the midterms anyways, so I’m not sure it’s going to be much of a deterrent,” he said. “If he can achieve things on those two signature items, he’s likely willing to put [Democrats] in a vulnerable spot — I’m not sure that’s going to be much of a check on anything.”

The president’s inclination to act might be further buttressed by the possibility that his executive actions could provoke members of the Republican caucus into a politically self-destructive reaction. 

After former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin suggested earlier this summer that the president should be impeached over his use of executive action, White House aides began noting publicly every Tea Party lawmaker who said they agreed. 

The president also frequently railed against House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) proposed lawsuit over the administration’s ObamaCare regulations, Democratic campaign committees still invoke the lawsuit in fundraising emails.

The administration is also salivating at threats from some Republicans to force a government shutdown over the president’s use of executive orders on immigration.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said in an interview this week that "all bets are off" for a short-term funding measure if Obama were to go ahead on executive actions. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have also suggested the GOP could use the budget process to halt administrative actions being contemplated by the White House.

“One of the biggest vulnerabilities of the Republican Party is not simply being the party of obstruction, but the party of extremism,” Zelizer said.

Still, it all amounts to a high-risk, high-reward strategy for the White House.

“That strategy really depends on your opponents to hurt themselves worse than you hurt yourself,” said Jillson.

“Republicans are aware of the strategy, as well, and should be preparing responses to executive actions that are satisfactory to the base without slipping their heads into the Democrats’ noose.”