The president is stuck in a congressional quagmire and no amount of “outside pressure” will get him out. Spring is about to begin. The first 100 days of his second term will end in a little more than a month. Before long baseball will resume, and then the NFL season will begin, and Congress will turn its compound eye to 2014. The president will be a lame duck.
And what will he have to show for it? Guns, immigration, budgets, climate change, and the minimum wage are all tied up on Capitol Hill. No one knows when, or if, they will emerge. Or what they might end up looking like.
Meanwhile, Obama’s approval rating is falling. He has been relegated to visiting the hill, and “reaching out” to select Republican mealtime companions, in an effort to stay relevant. But his activities seem curiously out of place. They demonstrate that the real action at the moment is not in the Oval Office. Even in the drama over the budget, where Obama could play a major role, he seems desultory and content to let Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) have the stage. Otherwise his administration wouldn’t be waiting until April to release its proposal.
What happened? Last week, I suggested Obama and his team had fallen for the “mandate myth,” or the false idea that winning reelection guarantees policy success. But there may be more to Obama’s current stall.
Clearly the Obama team, in the aftermath of the president’s reelection, had a strategy. And the strategy was simple: Press the Republicans on all fronts at once. Use the momentum of the campaign and the fiscal cliff deal to win the controversial nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, and pass gun controls, immigration reform, and additional tax increases on the wealthy. If the problem was Republican intransigence, then follow Donald Rumsfeld’s (and Dwight Eisenhower’s) advice: “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” Break the Republicans by revealing their stubbornness baldly and unequivocally and globally.
There was no way of knowing whether or not this strategy would succeed. And maybe, in some parallel universe, it did succeed. After all, the Republicans are demoralized. They have their own problems. A swell of presidential and media pressure might have forced them into hasty acquiescence.
Such was the president’s bet, anyway. A bet he clearly lost.
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