Chris Weigant: Obama’s Second-Year Potential
President Barack Obama has the potential of having a pretty good second year in office. Conventional inside-the-Beltway wisdom is that “nothing much gets done in a congressional election year,” but this ignores the fact that life itself does not halt for electioneering, but rather keeps right on happening. And there are quite a few positive things either explicitly scheduled for 2010, or at least very likely to happen. This doesn’t automatically mean the president is guaranteed to have a great year, but it certainly sets the scene for Obama managing to have a fairly good year.
The first good news Obama is expecting is the culmination of an effort which absorbed much of his first year in office — healthcare reform legislation appearing on his desk to sign into law. Barring any huge surprises, at some point in the next few weeks, Obama’s going to be able to proclaim a legislative victory that (in his own words) “seven previous presidents” have attempted — and failed to achieve.
This will be the end of a long battle, and for many (who fought for even stronger reforms), it may not feel like much of a victory at all. But most of the American public doesn’t fixate on “what might have been” so much, preferring instead to focus on “something getting done.” And something big and historic is indeed about to get done. Whether this turns out to be a political plus or minus is likely going to have to take a few years to figure out, but in the immediate future it will be hailed as a big win for the president. Even the mainstream media will have to begrudgingly give Obama some credit on this issue. Obama will proudly say he campaigned on big issues, and has now checked one of them off his list.
Of course, Obama’s big ambitions have yet to be fully matched with the strategy and tactics he chooses to use in order to promote his agenda, but being president is always a learning process. And, hopefully, Obama has learned a few lessons from his first year in office. This also has potential to become a much stronger political plus for the president, as he will (assumably) make fewer rookie stumbles next year, and become more effective in nudging Congress to produce. Tactics which bear no fruit (such as Obama’s wishes for bipartisanship) will likely be either completely abandoned, or just be given minimal lip service in the coming year.
Obama’s second year will begin in grand fashion, with the traditional State Of The Union address to a joint session of Congress, and to the American public at large. The speech has already been moved a few weeks back, to “early February,” to give the House and the Senate time to get the healthcare bill on his desk. This is smart, because standing up and saying “we got healthcare reform done” is a lot better than mumbling, “well, we’re almost there, give us a little more time….” Obama will use the stature of the speech to remind America where we all were one year ago, point out some of the good things that Democrats have accomplished, and also remind everyone of some bad things which were avoided. Presidents usually get a bump in the polls from giving State Of The Union speeches, and Obama will most likely reap this benefit as well.
But the biggest, and most important thing which could happen in 2010 is which direction the economy will be heading. Once again, Obama can most likely expect some good news on this front. This may begin before any of the rest of the items on this list, as the unemployment numbers for last month come out in a few days. The last week of last year saw a steep drop in people initially filing for unemployment, which may be no more than an anomaly (most bosses are assumably bright enough to either fire people before the holidays, or wait until just after, rather than dumping workers between Christmas and New Year’s). But even if it is an anomaly, it may result in the best news Obama could hope for at this point — that America actually added jobs last month, instead of suffering yet another net loss. This will be the first time in a long time that this has happened, and the first time during Obama’s presidency.
Of course, Democrats (including Obama) will urge, cautiously, not to read too much into this number — every time they speak of it. But this restraint will fail to completely conceal the glee that they feel in being able to report some good news on the jobs front, just as the midterm election season gets underway. Much more importantly, if the good news continues for a few months, then Democrats can start talking about the “economic recovery” in a more full-throated fashion. Which will help Democrats’ chances in the congressional elections, and will also help Obama himself. If the country starts thinking “things are getting slowly better” rather than “things continue to get worse,” it always helps the party in power in Washington, as measured by opinion polls.
A minor piece of all this is the decennial census, which will take place this year. This means a lot of people are going to get temporary jobs, which (in a minor way) will help improve the employment numbers for the next few months as well.
Obama, and Congress, are likely to spend a few months on some window-dressing “jobs legislation,” which (if you ask economists) will likely have very little actual result this year (these things take a lot of time), but which will politically benefit the Democrats, because at least they’ll be seen as addressing the problem. Especially if Republicans fight every proposal tooth and nail (as seems a safe bet, at this point).
The next big piece of good news for Obama will be a massive troop withdrawal from Iraq. The Iraqi national elections were supposed to take place this month, but got pushed back to the first week in March. But the American military commanders on the ground say they are going to stick to their schedule of beginning to withdraw combat troops in early May, and will do so at the rate of 12,500 troops per month, until all combat forces are gone (leaving about 50,000 troops in the country, until the final withdrawal takes place at the end of next year). This has always been the plan, and was actually put in place by President Bush, right before he left office a year ago. But for three or four months this spring and summer, television screens will show joyful reunions of soldiers and their families — which, politically, is good news, and will help Obama (somewhat) with the people who are outraged over his Afghanistan policy.
And, while speculative, the Washington rumor-mill has it that at least one (and possibly two) Supreme Court Justices will announce their retirement at the end of this year’s term. This means that during the summer, Obama will be able to nominate his second pick for the high court. His last pick did him a lot of good with Latinos, and one expects that his next pick will also gain him some political capital with a portion of his Democratic base.
One thing on the calendar this year which isn’t likely to do Democrats or Obama much good is the fact that the 2001 Bush tax cuts are set to expire next year. The reason this is politically dangerous for Democrats is that revamping tax policy is not exactly an election-winner for Democrats (or, at least, it hasn’t been for quite a while). Republicans are going to make as much political hay over this situation as possible, and Democrats are already signaling that they are likely to punt on the issue, and pass a very short-term (one to three years’ worth) tax policy, so don’t look for any structural, sweeping changes on this front. Republicans are also going to be fear-mongering on the deficit, but again, I wouldn’t look for Democrats to do much more than a bit of grandstanding on this issue, either.
Speaking of grandstanding without accomplishing anything, Obama will likely not get his energy policy through Congress this year, either. Bruised from the healthcare battles, and facing election season, I just don’t see it in the cards for cap-and-trade legislation (or anything of similar significance on energy) to actually get passed this year. Of course, I could be wrong about that. But, again, Democrats will likely at least be seen as making the attempt, while Republicans fight any ideas tooth and nail, further cementing their “Party of No” label in the American electorate.
Which brings me to the final issue likely to be a big one politically in 2010 — immigration reform. Now this one could really go either way. It could very easily, like energy legislation, get punted to next year. But that is going to seriously annoy Latinos, who are fast becoming one of the biggest and most important constituencies in the Democratic Party. Getting Sotomayor on the Supreme Court was a nice victory for Latinos, but their biggest goal is comprehensive immigration reform. And they’re not in the mood to hear “we’ll tackle it next year, promise” from the Democratic Party at this point.
Meaning both Obama and Democrats in Congress may have to move forward on the issue — which may become one of the most contentious issues of the entire year, politically. This could wind up helping Democrats, and it could just as easily wind up hurting them.
The biggest reason for this is the fact that immigration reform opponents will tie the issue to the “jobs” issue. With unemployment at record levels, they will argue, why should we allow millions more into the legal job market at this point in time? The economy improving will dull this argument a bit, but nowhere near enough (as the economy simply isn’t going to get that much better that quickly).
But that’s assuming that immigration reform opponents will calmly and rationally explain their objections to the public, without going overboard with demagoguery. And my money is on the opposition getting so emotional on the issue that they find themselves allied with racist elements, as has happened before. Now, to clarify, I think most Republicans in office are smart enough to avoid direct race-baiting on the immigration issue, but I also think the people who show up at right-wing rallies and get their signs on television will not likewise be so restrained. Which will wind up hurting their cause with moderate suburban voters and independents.
Republicans have tried this before. Republican candidates in the past few congressional elections have latched on to anti-immigrant rhetoric in an attempt to get elected, and most of them have failed — even in border states where the issue is of paramount political importance. Sooner or later Republicans are going to realize that this really isn’t a winning issue for them to demagogue, either in the short term (of winning a specific election), or in the long term (by driving Latinos away from their party for a generation).
So, if handled correctly, pushing for comprehensive immigration reform could be a good political move for Democrats this year — especially if they actually get something passed before the election. Democrats face a real “enthusiasm gap” among voters, heading in to this November’s contests, and boosting Latino enthusiasm could go a long way towards improving this situation.
Of course, the latter half of the year will be consumed with the midterm elections. Dire predictions of the Democrats’ chances are already a dime a dozen among the punditry. Later this year, look for the main storyline to be “this election is a referendum on Obama,” even though most elections at the state level are concerned with either local issues or the personalities of the candidates themselves. Historically, presidents almost always lose seats in their first midterms, so that’s what the expectation is for 2010. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that Republicans will likely not take control of either house of Congress this November. Democrats will likely lose some seats in the House, but still retain a healthy majority. Over in the Senate, Democrats may lose a few seats, and by doing so, lose their 60-vote supermajority. This could be a prescription for utter gridlock on Capitol Hill for the next two years, as the Republicans gleefully filibuster everything to death.
But, with the bar so low on what people are expecting out of the midterms (due mostly to the media’s “Democrats are toast this year” drumbeat), Democrats may actually surprise the chattering classes and do better than expected. As long as the election isn’t a total rout, Obama shouldn’t be damaged politically too much by the results.
Of course, as I mentioned, having less than 60 seats in the Senate may bode ill for Obama’s political future in the final two years of his term. But 2010 is actually shaping up to be a pretty good year for him, at least with events that can be foreseen. The potential exists, as always, of unforeseen events completely overshadowing any or all of this, but “unforeseen” (by definition) means such things can’t be predicted in advance. And looking over the events which can be predicted to be on the calendar for the president’s second year shows that the potential is there for Barack Obama to have a much better year politically than he did last year. Whether he capitalizes on this potential or not remains to be seen, but at least this positive potential exists, at this point.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
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