When President Obama stands on the west steps of the Capitol to deliver his second inaugural address on Monday morning, his back will be turned to Congress, a legislative body whose public approval has crashed to near single digits.
While Mr. Obama came to Washington promising to change it, he spent much of the latter half of his first term as president in a running series of bitter battles with congressional Republicans. That inability to find common cause – whoever is more to blame – led to the least productive Congress in modern American history.
But if the president is going to pass legislative fixes for weighty issues like immigration reform, changes to the nation’s gun laws, and the nation’s troubled fiscal situation, he’s going to need to work with the body he spent much of his reelection campaign railing against.
Americans are feeling like a bit differently about their country this year than they were four years ago, Democratic pollster Peter Hart said recently, with lower expectations and a somber outlook for the next presidential term replacing the soaring ambitions of Inauguration Day 2009.
"If 2009 was all about hope,” Mr. Hart said, “2013 is about the ability to cope."
Hart may very well be speaking about the president, too.
Coping for Obama could mean dealing with the reality of divided government by focusing on issues of common ground between the president and Republicans, such as immigration reform and energy policy. And when Republicans balk, the president can use the Senate and his immense political operation to deliver public pressure on House Republicans.
Coping with divided government likely won’t be aided, as many pundits suggest, by a president who slaps more GOP backs or has more Republicans over to the White House for movies and cards. The president isn’t likely to win fans for his legislative agenda by trying to pal around with rock-ribbed Republicans with fundamentally different views about the role of government in American life.
“The president has been criticized by many people for his inability or unwillingness to spend a lot of time stroking members of Congress,” says Ross Baker, a congressional historian at Rutgers University who is writing a book on bipartisanship in the US Senate. “I think a lot of this is based upon the widely-accepted theory [that the] power of a presidency is the power to persuade – which is perfectly plausible, and it was certainly plausible in the 1950s.... The problem is, there are no persuadables" today.
But by focusing on issues of common ground with the GOP, Washington could generate some bipartisan successes in the next four years.
Immigration and Energy
For one, the president could team up with Republican moderates and much of the party’s leadership on immigration reform.
“We believe that immigration reform is different in that it has a past, present, and future of bipartisan support,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “What we’ve seen over the last two years is conservatives, moderates, and liberals want this president and this Congress to act, and that’s different from any other issue.”
And the president could perhaps turn down the bellicosity on the Hill by working with some of his loudest critics (though risking the ire of environmentalists in his political base) in one area that the deeply-red right and the president could agree: energy policy.
“We were encouraged by President Obama’s 2012 campaign comments supporting an all-of-the-above agenda on energy, and his statements outlining support for oil and natural gas,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s powerful trade association, in his annual State of American Energy address in Washington earlier this month.
But Republicans rage about a disconnect between what the president and members of his administration say they favor and what Republicans say is foot-dragging in building the Keystone XL pipeline, exporting natural gas, or freeing up more offshore areas for energy exploration. If the president were to get behind any of these initiatives he’d likely have plenty of GOP support – but that remains a large “if.”
“I think that [Obama’s] credibility with environmentalists would certainly be damaged” by getting on board with many energy priorities, says Baker, “and since he doesn’t have to run again, it would seem to me sort a coin toss if he would alienate a Democratic constituency to ingratiate himself with some people who probably wouldn’t vote for him under any circumstances.”
And then there’s always the Democrats. In assessing the president’s relationship with Congress, it’s worth remembering that he’s gotten great compliance among his Democratic allies to date.
In the House, particularly, Democrats have been a rock-solid voting bloc capable of providing the lion’s share of votes to pass key legislation from a debt ceiling increase, the fiscal-cliff solving tax deal, or aid for areas affected by hurricane Sandy.
When the president has to overcome congressional Republicans more than compromise with them (as on his recent slate of gun violence prevention measures), Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel recently told reporters that the president has a great way to do this, too – pass bills in the Democrat-led Senate and then use the power of the bully pulpit to turn public pressure on the House GOP.
As Mr. Emanuel put it: “Put the burner up.”
How much the GOP will respond – or need to respond – to such pressure is an open question. House Republicans have signaled that they are thinking through how to thrive in divided government, too. Numerous press reports from the GOP’s annual policy gathering this week suggest that the often-rambunctious House GOP is considering a strategic shift toward “making progress” toward Republican aims, as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin put it, instead of holding out for their maximum demands.
On Friday, for example, the GOP offered to back down from its previously steadfast demand for $1 in budget cuts for every $1 increase in the federal debt ceiling for a much less strident demand: that both sides of Capitol Hill be required to pass a budget or lawmakers would go without pay.
Whatever the balance of pressure and compromise, the president won’t be able to avoid Congress in Term 2. After all, his first date after his inaugural address is a lunch, where else, but on Capitol Hill.