The failure of a package of gun control measures last week not only robs President Obama of what was expected to be a major legislative accomplishment of his second term, it also ramps up pressure for him to find a way to succeed in upcoming fights on immigration and the federal budget.
“The President’s success hinges on getting a budget deal that further reduces the deficit,” said Democratic consultant Steve Murphy. “Looking at the polling, it’s clear the American people are demanding it get done, and they are holding both sides responsible.”
Remember that Obama himself has acknowledged that he likely has until the 2014 midterm elections to get done what he hopes will shape his second term legacy before he becomes a lame duck, as the 2016 fight heats up. (We would argue he has roughly another 15 months – until the 2014 August Congressional recess — to get done what he wants to define his second term.)
And, recall that Obama’s State of the Union speech was dedicated — in large part — to three topics: guns, immigration and the budget. (He did also talk some climate change. More on that below.) With guns, which was clearly the emotional centerpiece of that address, now off the table for the foreseeable future, getting to a yes on the budget and immigration is made all the more important.
That reality may well impact the upper hand that most commentators — the Fix included — thought that Obama would enjoy over House Republicans this year and next, particularly on the deficit and federal budget. (Immigration remains a place where Obama has real leverage, given the political realities Republicans will be faced with among the Hispanic community if they can’t find a way to get on board with an immigration overhaul.)
Obama scored two quick victories over GOPers on the budget in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 election — winning tax increases on the wealthiest Americans in the “fiscal cliff” deal and forcing Republicans to kick the debt ceiling debate down the road into the summer.
Republicans privately acknowledged that they hoped that the political environment might move in their direction by the time the debate over the debt ceiling began again, admitting that in early 2013 they simply couldn’t beat Obama on any issue.
And they may be getting exactly what they want. Not only does the failure of the gun bill make Obama more focused on fixing the economy as a pillar of his second term legacy, but polling also suggests his numbers on the economy have fallen since late 2012. A mid-December Washington Post-ABC News poll pegged his approval on the economy at 50 percent; it was down to 44 percent in a Post-ABC survey conducted earlier this month.
Make no mistake: Congressional Republicans have far from a strong negotiating position when it comes to the debt ceiling fight. That same April Post-ABC poll showed seven in 10 Americans believe the GOP is “out of touch” with the concerns of average people. And the Republican conference — particularly in the House — remains fractious and, if the fiscal cliff debate is any indication, impossible to lead.
But knowing that President Obama’s legacy may well be riding on making a budget deal — especially after the failure on guns — gives Republicans a piece of leverage, which is far better than the zero leverage position they held in late 2012 and early 2013.
Beyond the budget (and immigration), it’s difficult to see Obama taking on any other sort of major legacy-building projects between now and the summer of 2014.
Climate change is something he mentioned not only in his State of the Union, but also in his second inaugural address and seems likely to get some sort of push between now and the midterms. But given the fraught politics around doing anything major on the issue — see the 2009 cap-and-trade vote in the House – it seems likely that Obama will go small-bore rather than major overhaul if he wants to get something through Congress.
Voting rights is another place where a piece of Obama’s second-term legacy might be built — he established a commission last month to improve accessibility and efficiency at the ballot box — but, again, if anything moves through Congress on that front it’s likely to be small(ish) bore.
The failure to pass a package of gun rights legislation — or to even force a vote on such a proposal in either the House or the Senate — changes the calculation that Obama and his senior team must make going forward as they seek to define how his second term will be remembered.
Yes, it’s only April 2013. But Obama’s legacy-building took a major hit last week when the gun bill failed. What he does on the budget and, to a lesser extent, immigration matters even more now.