Is Obama already a lame-duck president?

President Obama's second-term woes are already piling up, with Obamacare's travails atop the list. But Obama still has three years left, and the presidency holds significant power.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama waves to the audience as he finishes speaking at the World AIDS Day event in Washington. His second-term problems are continuing to mount.

The “L word” – as in “lame,” followed by “duck” – is already creeping into the conversation on President Obama’s second-term woes.

The disastrous rollout of HealthCare.gov, followed by the flap over canceled policies and other effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), means Mr. Obama will spend the rest of his presidency trying to prove the law can or will work. That distracts from efforts toward new accomplishments, be it immigration reform or a long-term budget deal or climate change.

The Obamacare mess has also sent the president’s job approval ratings and personal popularity south, depleting his political capital and harming Democrats’ prospects in the 2014 midterms – particularly in the Senate, where Democratic control is in jeopardy.

And in perhaps the final sign that Obama may be sliding toward lame-duckery, political media have been obsessed by the 2016 presidential race almost since the moment Obama was reelected. Hillary Rodham Clinton practically has the Democratic nomination locked up without even announcing, if the prevailing narrative is to be believed. And New Jersey’s voluble Republican governor, Chris Christie, has sent clear signals he’s running, setting up a delicious potential matchup.

That last point might say more about the media than about presidential politics, though in the modern era, it’s not too soon to be strategizing about the next race.

Still, the early rumblings of 2016 are a sideshow compared with the present challenge of being president. And for Obama, analysts say, despite the rough rollout of the ACA, there’s plenty of juice left in his presidency – especially with more than three years to go.

“It has to do with the inherent powers of the presidency,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “Between now and the 20th of January 2017, there will be many opportunities for him to do things, even if Congress doesn’t cooperate.”

Obama has shown clear willingness to use executive power to effect policy without Congress. Examples include changes to the ACA, actions on firearms, limits on greenhouse gases, changes to IRS rules that affect political action committees, and deferring deportation of young illegal immigrants.

The president has held back on taking other executive actions, despite pressure from activists, especially on gay rights and broader immigration reform. That hesitancy likely signals a desire to keep working with Congress on those matters, bringing more public buy-in and the ability to institute more sweeping reform.

The White House is putting out the word that Obama is keeping his powder dry on issues like comprehensive immigration reform and expanded background checks on guns, two initiatives that ran aground in Congress this year.

“The president takes a long view of things,” White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri told MSNBC on Monday. “We made a lot of progress in this past year on those issues, and we’ll continue to push it as long as it takes through the rest of the presidency.”

Still, there’s no sign that Congress’s intense polarization is about to change anytime soon. Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s recent deployment of the “nuclear option,” changing the rules of confirmation, should make it easier for Obama to seat many new judges and executive branch nominees, though the move infuriated Republicans and could lead to other blocking tactics.

What second-term Obama is experiencing isn’t all that different from what many other presidents have faced after starting their second four years.  

“They do run into second-term blues,” says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina. “Of course, the question is whether the president can recover. Some do and some don’t.”

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, didn’t. Soon after taking his second oath of office, the public went sour on the Iraq War and Mr. Bush’s job approval tanked. His big second-term initiative, introducing private accounts into Social Security, never got off the ground. Hurricane Katrina sealed Bush’s fate.

In contrast, President Reagan was able to bring his public support back up after the Iran-Contra scandal; in his final year in office, his job approval averaged 53 percent, according to Gallup. Obama’s current average of major polls is 40 percent.

“One of the things Reagan had going for him was that the economy was doing better,” says Mr. Guth. “Obama may have that working for him as well.”

In other words, “It’s the economy, stupid” – Democratic strategist James Carville’s rallying cry in the 1992 election – still applies.

And what has come to be a scandal of incompetence with the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov will, in time, start to feel like old news, assuming the site’s performance continues to improve. Perhaps the biggest question hanging over Obama’s presidency is how the rest of the ACA will unfold – and how it will affect the existing health-care system. Protecting the increasingly unpopular ACA may end up being the biggest project of his second term.

But in the meantime, Obama is also making headway on the longstanding issue of Iran’s nuclear program, with an interim accord that freezes key aspects in exchange for temporary relief on some economic sanctions. If that deal ends up being productive, it would prove the maxim that second-term presidents look overseas for their successes.

And if the Republicans do end up retaking the Senate next November, Obama can spend his final two years in office wielding the mightiest presidential tool of all – the veto pen.  

“Presidents don’t want to make their reputations by casting a lot of vetoes,” says Mr. Baker, “but he can certainly make a stand with vetoes, and block whatever it is that a Republican majority in both houses would try to enact.” 

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