Five months after his resounding reelection victory, President Obama is bumping up against the boundaries of his political power in Washington as the core of his second-term legislative agenda moves into a still-divided Congress.
His ability to secure the three high-profile legislative items now confronting Congress — gun-control measures, reform of the immigration system and his long-term budget priorities — is likely to determine his domestic legacy. Obama’s plan now is to ensure that as much of his politically challenging agenda as possible is enacted, after months of effort to frame the policies for the American public and, perhaps more important, for the House and Senate.
Each of the issues that Obama is pursuing is being managed independently by the second-term White House team — an improvisational strategy that is testing the president’s ability to calibrate when to get involved and when to stay out of the way.
But senior administration officials acknowledge that only immigration legislation has a chance of resembling Obama’s ideal bill once it emerges from the Democratic-run Senate and the Republican-controlled House.
On his other major initiatives, they say Obama would settle for less than he claims he wants, a sign that he remains pragmatic in the face of partisan opposition that continues to limit his ambitions.
“I have the same worry about all of these issues, and it’s the Republican House,” said Dan Pfeiffer, an Obama senior adviser.
Obama outlined a broad progressive agenda in his second inaugural address, and he has spoken frequently about the validation that he believes the public gave his plans by reelecting him last year. But second-term presidents traditionally have less than two years to secure a legislative agenda before lame-duck status sets in, and Obama already has seen his popular support shrink in recent months from its post-
The election also did not change the basic political dynamic in Washington: a Democratic president in conflict with congressional Republicans, only some of whom believe last year’s election represented a call for compromise.
Each morning, the new White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, reviews the overall legislative progress with senior staff. Inside the White House, each issue has a group responsible for its day-to-day management on Capitol Hill.
The strategy has led Obama to alternately court Senate Republicans — as he did last week in his second such dinner with a dozen of them — and to scold them before outside-the-Beltway audi-
ences, as he did this month in denouncing GOP threats to block gun-control legislation. Advisers say he does so to keep the political momentum alive in Washington for measures with strong public support outside the capital.
After months of campaigning for his agenda, two of his priorities appear to be inching through the Democratic-controlled Senate: a compromise on gun-purchase background checks was announced last week and another deal is expected this week on immigration.
But the budget he announced last week, which proposed restricting cost-of-living increases for Social Security, appears to have angered his own supporters more than it has convinced Republicans. It is an issue on which his strongest political leverage lies in going against his own party.
“I think they put something on the table which no Democrat should ever put on the table,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It’s not okay to be bargained with. The risk is that voters mistakenly identify his budget priorities with all of ours.”
After outlining what he wants in an immigration bill, Obama has largely taken a hands-off approach to designing the legislation, now the subject of negotiations among a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight.
The strategy was adopted soon after his second-term inauguration, when Obama, eager to push the issue after winning more than 70 percent of the Latino vote, prepared to introduce his own bill during a visit to Las Vegas to break a long-standing deadlock among Senate negotiators.
Administration officials said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Gang of Eight member, called the White House a few days before the Jan. 29 event. Schumer said the group was close to reaching consensus on a bill and asked Obama to hold off on announcing his own in order to avoid disrupting the talks.
“On any issue where there is progress being made, we don’t want to get in the way,” said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the White House legislative strategy and assess its prospects. “Every one of these issues has potential pitfalls and potential opportunities.”