Big changes? Obama may be on his own

Will have to rely on Congress less to achieve goals

President Obama saluted before boarding Air Force One in Washington to travel to Ohio for midterm election campaigning. President Obama saluted before boarding Air Force One in Washington to travel to Ohio for midterm election campaigning. (Jason Reed/ Reuters)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post / October 18, 2010

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WASHINGTON — As the tumultuous first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency draw to a close, the president and his advisers have begun to puzzle over a difficult question: Now what?

There are many things Obama has said he would like to accomplish in the next two years of his term — overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, passing energy and climate change legislation, and shrinking the federal deficit, to name a few. Yet doing so may be exceptionally challenging, if even possible, given the skeptical mood of the public and the coming shake-up in Washington.

Next month’s midterm elections will leave the president with fewer friends in Congress, and possibly a Republican majority in one or both chambers emboldened to thwart his plans.

In White House strategy sessions, Obama’s senior staff members are debating their options. They have not settled on a specific plan, and the president has not spelled one out. How Obama approaches the coming years will depend in part on whether Democrats lose Congress or survive with narrower majorities.

Yet no matter how the elections turn out, a consensus has emerged in the West Wing that Obama will have to set out goals that do not rely as much on Congress to advance his unfinished agenda.

Even with his party now in control on Capitol Hill, Obama has had difficulty winning approval for big initiatives such as health care and financial regulation. After the grueling midterms, and with diminished ranks, Democrats will probably return for the new Congress in January more cautious than when Obama first took office.

“Clearly the agenda carried out by the administration in the first two years — the agenda that it wanted to do rather than had to do — will be smaller these next two years,’’ said William Galston, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution who was a policy adviser in the Clinton administration. “But there is still an agenda of necessity with Congress, and the administration will not be able to just avoid it entirely.’’

One senior administration official said the courts may play an expanded role in the next two years, as the president defends his health care and financial-regulation overhauls against legal challenges brought by opponents who hope to undo them or dial them back.

The president could also choose to use — or threaten to use — his executive powers to get some of what he wants done without seeking congressional approval. Last year, he backed the decision of Lisa Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, to enact tough new regulations on carbon emissions unless Congress takes action.

Similarly, President George W. Bush, faced with opposition from Democrats in Congress, made significant changes to federal environmental rules to make it easier for the oil and gas industry to explore on federal lands.

Obama’s lack of a specific plan for his second term contrasts with the blueprint he drew up as he prepared to take office in January 2009. He and his advisers carefully plotted what they intended to do and in what order they intended to do it. Health care was the centerpiece, of course, but Obama even instructed aides to begin making lists of possible nominees for the Supreme Court.

One thing the president did not plan for then was the public’s growing discontent with his focus on health care and other priorities as the economy continued to falter — which led to a drop in his approval rating and helped fuel a backlash against Democratic candidates. Obama’s advisers are now perhaps reluctant to make decisions until they can survey the volatile political environment in which they will play out.

“The biggest difference is going to be that we had a unique situation as we took office that required us to do extraordinary things that were not particularly popular,’’ said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary.

He cited the $814 billion stimulus measure and the decision to throw a multibillion-dollar lifeline to Chrysler and General Motors. “Part of what the next two years will be about is implementing what we have done these first two years,’’ Gibbs said.

The party in power has historically lost congressional seats in midterm elections, forcing presidents to alter political tactics and rethink policy ambitions. But history also shows that presidents have revived their fortunes during times of divided government (if that is what Nov. 2 brings) when both parties have a political stake in compromising to get things done.

Not all the remaining items on Obama’s to-do list are politically popular. Cap-and-trade energy legislation and an immigration overhaul, for instance, are divisive even among Democrats.

One strain of discussion within the White House is how to make them more palatable — or how to blame Republicans if they end up stalling in Congress.