Obama loses altitude, needs solid wins

Six months into his second term, the momentum that President Obama gained from his reelection win is a fading memory. [WATCH VIDEO]

Few could have foreseen this White House struggling so much after Obama’s convincing 332-206 electoral vote victory over Mitt Romney last November.


“He needs wins and he needs them soon. There’s no way around that,” said one top Democratic strategist who routinely communicates with the White House. “I think just about everyone realizes that.”

Obama is headed into a key part of his presidency with immigration reform teetering, another debt-limit showdown looming and the daunting task of implementing his signature healthcare law hanging over him.

In 2012, Obama predicted that if he won, it would break a GOP “fever,” which was how he characterized Republican efforts to block his agenda. But since his inauguration, Republicans have battled him on many issues.

Obama’s year to date has been marked by a combination of failures, distractions and uncertainties.

A push for gun control in the wake of the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school last December came to nothing.

Controversies over the IRS and, more recently, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden absorbed administration energy and time. 

The effort to enact far-reaching immigration reform advanced though the Senate on a 68-32 vote. But the fate of the measure is in serious doubt in the House, where Republicans balk at providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, which Obama demands.  

His supporters argue that GOP recalcitrance is to blame for the lack of legislative progress, beyond healthcare.

“If you’re the president, who do you negotiate with?” Democratic strategist Doug Thornell asked rhetorically. “It takes two to tango,  and Republicans have decided to sit on the sidelines.”

Still, Obama needs things to go his way in the second half of the year, otherwise his remaining ambitions will likely peter out, unfulfilled.

Months ago, optimistic Democrats in Washington felt that they had a shot at seizing control of the House in 2014. Obama in May said, “We’ve got a great chance to take back the House.”

Political handicappers disagree, with some now predicting the GOP could easily expand its majority next year.

Put it all together and it is easy to understand why even allies of the administration are becoming concerned. 

Last week’s events in Egypt showed that foreign policy will probably not provide Obama with any relief from domestic challenges. In his first term, he withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, which was popular, ordered a surge and then a drawdown of troop levels in Afghanistan, and gave the green light for the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.  

No one knows how events in Cairo will  unspool, but critics are already charging that the United States has less leverage in Egypt than it once did. The wider ramifications of the 2011 “Arab Spring” are still playing out, and there is no guarantee that efforts to resuscitate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians will pay dividends. 

But the pendulum has not swung entirely against Obama.  

The economy is improving, albeit more slowly than the president would like. If the recovery gains strength, it will lift Obama and the general mood of the nation.

The president’s recent speech on climate change also underlined that he is capable of taking action without always having to deal with Congress. On that topic, he intends to use executive actions and regulations. 

Some independent observers argue that Obama is being hamstrung by the political dynamics of the day rather than because of any failure of leadership on his part. 

“Second terms are hard and, in an era of polarization, even harder. The idea that he was going to be able to get a very big legislative agenda through was pretty much a dream,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

“We’re in an era where you get a kind of hatred,” Zelizer added. “Half the country votes for the president and the other half hates him. And that’s the kind of political environment you have to govern in.”

Zelizer, along with others who spoke to The Hill, noted that one key element in Obama’s second term and in securing his historical legacy will be the effort to bed down the legislative achievements of his first four years.

No achievement is more important than the Affordable Care Act, now more widely known as ObamaCare. This, in turn, explains why the recent decision to delay the requirement for employers to provide healthcare for their workers was met with such consternation, even from people who support the administration.

“Look, I know it’s a complicated law with many levers and buttons, but they should have had all this figured out before it appeared like it was ready to go,” one former administration official said. “It’s a good law, it will help so many people who need it, but it looks sloppy.”

The danger for Obama is that people’s faith both in him personally and in the more activist role of government that he favors will decline.

“The people’s trust in his leadership has fallen,” said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

But, she added, “people are increasingly disgusted with both political parties. For the average American, you really don’t have anyone who seems like they can craft solutions. People are losing faith that their government can do so much.”

Republicans are, predictably, even less charitable. “You’re in a bad place when scandals far outnumber your legislation achievements,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (R-Ohio). “The president spent a billion dollars to get reelected and still has nothing to show for it.”

Yet Obama might benefit from fights with the GOP. A recent Gallup poll showed just 39 percent of respondents holding a favorable view of the Republican Party.

The last major legislative victories Obama secured came in early January when the GOP stumbled during debates over the fiscal cliff and a Hurricane Sandy relief package.

Even as the president has been frustrated in recent months, his allies take heart from their belief that he is lucky in his enemies.