Obama term 2: Will Republicans cooperate, could Hillary end up on the Supreme Court, and more
I did a live chat at the Post today centered around my recent piece looking at what Obama would likely do in a second term. Here’s the transcript. Reader questions are in bold, my answers are in plain text.
Ezra, the first year of a presidential term is where legislative agendas are won and lost. Would the GOP still be able to obstruct on the scale that they have or will re-election force them to concede on the major legislative items, tax reform, immigration reform, climate and energy reform. If not, what tools are even available for the President should he return to office with the same congressional make up?
Assuming the GOP still controls the House and keeps it close in the Senate, they could absolutely obstruct on the scale we’ve seen in recent years. The question is whether they’ll want to. You can think of a few reasons they may not.
1) More must-pass items they care about. They don’t want all the Bush tax cuts to expire. They don’t want the Pentagon to see massive spending cuts. They may not even want to be blamed for a breach of the debt-ceiling.
2) Political rethink: They’ll have just failed to unseat Obama. They’ll likely have suffered some congressional losses. That will mean they’ve lost two presidential elections in a row. Political parties often begin a rethink at about that time, and perhaps some in the GOP will start to wonder whether catering to the far right is really serving them so well in general elections.
3) Personal desire. Many legislators do want to legislate. They didn’t come to Washington and give up all that time with their families and friends just to write press releases calling Harry Reid a jerk. They put a lot of their “let’s get something done” instincts on hold to beat Obama, but that failed, and so maybe they’ll want to spend a few years getting something done.
All that said, I think it remains quite likely that cooperation is rare to nonexistent, and that it’s just more brinksmanship and missed opportunities. The forces of polarization are strong.
In a second term Obama would no doubt finish his political evolution, with no more elections to win, and move in the direction of legalizing gay marriage, don’t you think?
I really don’t know. I don’t think Obama can legalize gay marriage by fiat, though perhaps I’m wrong about that. If it does have to go through Congress, I think they’d be unlikely to pick that fight unless they really thought they could win it. So while I could certainly see him coming out for gay marriage in clearer terms, I don’t know what their legislative calculus will be on the issue.
You mention the possibility of Supreme Court vacancies. What are the odds of Associate Justice Hillary Clinton?
I’ve often wondered if this is a job she’d want. In certain ways, it would make a lot of sense. And we used to have much more of a tradition in this country of nominating politicians to the Supreme Court (see, for instance, Sandra Day O’Connor). But I don’t know what’s in Hillary’s heart on this, or in Obama’s.
One area where there seems to be broad agreement among voters is the dysfunction of the political system, from campaign finance to the legislative process. Even for the politicians themselves, a dynamic in which they are always fundraising/campaigning and then can’t bring about any change once they’re elected can’t be a fun way to spend one’s time in office. Theoretically, this means that both parties would be interested in improving their own work environment. While there would a disincentive for incumbent lawmakers and the interest groups they represent to just sit back and let this happen, a cleaner political process would ultimately benefit the nation as a whole. How likely is it that Obama and the congressional leadership would give this area more attention during a second term?
This is, to me, one of the key questions of modern politics. The system is bad for both parties. Democrats can’t govern smoothly when they’re in the majority, but neither can Republicans. Very few politicians like spending so much of their time raising money. No politicians like the low esteem in which the public holds them. And yet they do nothing about it.
The problem is that the two sides never quite have the same incentives at the same time to change it. Majorities may not like the filibuster, but minorities do. Politicians may not like raising money, but when they’re incumbents, they know their fundraising networks give them an advantage over challengers.
I’ve always thought the right way to fix the system would be a bipartisan commission -- I know, I know -- that sets rules that the two parties agree will go into effect in six years, when no one knows who will control any branch of government.
Can you imagine the firestorm that would erupt if Obama got to appoint a successor to one of the Republican justices? How does Obama get the votes in the Senate?
By appointing a candidate they have trouble opposing. It does seem to be the case that qualified SCOTUS candidates who can’t be painted as truly extreme tend to be confirmed. Perhaps that will change. But if Republicans just keep rejecting candidates, I think you could see, in that case, Democrats finish what Sen. Bill Frist started and end the judicial filibuster.
Since the stock market will be affected by Spain and Greece, and the rising price of oil would stifle economic growth, how much is the president’s re-election out of his hands?
Quite a bit, I think. We vastly overstate the role of campaigns in deciding elections and presidents in driving economies.
Pundits seem to fetishize tax reform. Broaden the base by cutting marginal rates and removing “loopholes” and everything will be fine and dandy. But lobbyists for those loopholes don’t disappear. And members of Congress, especially senators, have a great deal of leverage when you need a supermajority to pass anything. So just like after the 1986 tax reform, the loopholes make their way back into the tax code, and eventually you’re left with a tax code with many of the same loopholes as before AND lower marginal tax rates. What is the advantage for Democrats for pursuing such an arrangement?
Well, if you can “fix” the tax code for 10 or 15 years, I think that’s pretty good. It’s like cleaning out a storm gutter: Yes, it’ll just fill back up with crud. But you still have to do it.
That said, your broader point is well taken: “Reform” always sounds great in theory. It gets very difficult in practice. From where I sit, it’s made vastly, vastly harder because there’s no current agreement on how much revenue the tax code should raise. Until there’s some resolution to that question, I don’t see how you do tax reform.
One topic I was surprised that you didn’t mention was the economy. Assuming that Obama wins with the economy roughly as it is now -- growing, but too sluggishly -- do you think he’s going to attempt any major additional measures? Might the administration use the “fiscal cliff” as a negotiating point to obtain additional stimulus, infrastructure spending, or something of the kind? Are there any other significant economic measures that you think they might seek?
I do think you could see infrastructure and related measures included in a taxmageddon deal. But I didn’t say much more on major stimulus packages because, while the Obama administration would certainly like to pass the American Jobs Act, Republicans won’t let them. Remember that the question of the piece wasn’t so much what “should” get done as what “will” get done, or at least tried.
How can you possibly condone Obama’s decimation of American Sovereignty? Another 4 years will be the end of this country as we know it - as it would slink into George Soros’ One-World tentacles. How can you possibly not see how Obama’s gradually eroding our rights and grabbing power for an all-invasive government body, not unlike so many Soc ialistic and Communist regimes? How can you , Mr Klein, be so gullible and blind? You call yourself an educated thinking man? Advocating for another term is treasonous. Are you on George Soros’ payroll?
Posted without comment.
How does the winner of Mourdock/Lugar affect any possible strategy the Obama campaign may have in terms of Indiana? Isn’t Joe Donnelly a prohibitive favorite against Mourdock? I’ve heard the President plans to fight for the state like he did in ‘08.
If Mourdock wins, Indiana is more gettable for the Dems, and the party will spend more there. But I think the main effect in Indiana is on other Republicans: If Lugar loses, it shows that the party is still successfully primarying incumbents, and so there’s more reason for Republicans to worry about compromising in the future. That makes it harder to get to any deals.
If the President wins re-election, what are the odds Simpson/Bowles will be brought up in Congress?
Well, it got brought up in the House and soundly rejected. As for the chances that something S-Bish becomes the resolution to ‘Taxmageddon’? Low, but not zero.
You and other congress watchers seem to tiptoe around the obvious and inescapable conclusion of your reporting and analysis: the GOP wants unemployment to remain high because they perceive Obama will be blamed for it. This is the Occam’s razor explanation for obstructing stimulus (which they support during GOP administrations) and Fed appointments, but you won’t say it squarely. Why not? What would convince you that the GOP is actively trying to discourage the economy from improving?
More evidence. Everything the GOP does is perfectly consistent with a “motivated reasoning” model of human behavior, in which people sincerely convince themselves of what their personal and group incentives lead them to believe. So, to use a non-economic example, i think Republicans sincerely oppose, and even hate, the individual mandate now, even though it was a Republican policy just a few years ago. The change was triggered by partisanship, but the way it actually functioned is by people convincing themselves that the mandate is terrible, unconstitutional policy.
In general, I think political debates are both much more sincere and much less rational than most folks believe.
Is there a way for Obama to cut defense spending without making Americans feel ...unsafe? I always felt like defense cuts would do major help for our budget, but I never hear it brought up.
I think so. Polling seems to suggest the public is much more open to defense cuts than Washington is. And remember, major defense cuts are currently baked into the cake of the sequester. Republicans are going to have to give up a lot to get them out of there.
It seems like the argument against austerity rests on the assumption that they’ve drastically cut government spending. David Brooks calls the European austerity “partly mythical.” Does this cause the argument against austerity to lose its legs?
I don’t understand this new argument in which austerity is only cuts in spending, not tax increases. But at any rate, Brooks is wrong that the European austerity is mythical. Here’s the Economist on the subject.
Would Obama tackle a comprehensive immigration policy?
He’d sure like to. The question is whether the votes will be there.
Do you think there’s any historical evidence to back up Romney’s implication that a 2nd term Obama would be unworried about re-election and therefore unfettered in his agenda? Were there really any big, major, game-changing, history-making policies from Clinton’s, Bush’s or Reagan’s second terms? I think we’d have to go back to Nixon’s 2nd term environmental acts to really see Second Term Hubris in action.
Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense. For one thing, structurally, Obama still has to deal with Congress. For another, he still cares about winning the 2014 midterm, and his party cares about winning in 2016. His legacy will be important to him.
So, in sum, he doesn’t have any new powers in his second term that allow him to act more ambitiously, and nor is he actually freed from worrying about the future. Obama in a second term will be a lot like Obama in a first term. The question is what events and political constraints he’ll be facing.
You mention Lew and Bowles and possible replacements for the departing Timothy Geithner. What are your thoughts on other prominent positions? Do you expect Bernanke to confirmed for another term? Do we know of any other departing secretaries and who would be in line to replace them? What about all the “acting” dept heads? Confirmations were hard in the first term. The second would be MUCH worse if the Dems lose control of the Senate.
I doubt Bernanke will get a third term. I’d be surprised if he even wanted one, on some level. As for confirmations, I wouldn’t be shocked to see a major push to streamline the Senate confirmation process, though I don’t know what form it will take.
Ezra, you seemed to be suggesting that we need to have a fixed percentage of something (say GDP) that we all “agree” to collect as taxes. Or did I read you wrong? Do you think that’s a good idea?
In context of tax reform, which I think is what you’re referring to, you need to know what revenue target you’re looking to hit. That is to say, you’ll have different rates, and you’ll close different deductions/expenditures, if you’re looking to raise 18 percent of GDP than if you’re looking to raise 23 percent of GDP.
I’m an independent who can no longer vote Republican mainly because their economic ideology cannot be substantiated by 30 years of data. However, the Democrats, as my only alternative, is very depressing. Anyway, despite the whining we hear from Wall Street, the Obama administration has done very little to bring the cheats and thieves to justice who are responsible for the economic debacle we are recovering from. Frankly, that’s been my biggest disappointment with Obama. Any chance we see perp walks from Wall Street bigshots and Alan Greenspan in a second term? Thanks.
Ezra, if the Supreme Court puts the kibosh on Obamacare, or even just on some parts of it, how do Obama and the Democrats respond? (As someone who’s been self-employed for many years, I am acutely concerned about this...)
If they overturn the whole thing, which most Court watchers consider unlikely, there’s not much Dems can do. If they only overturn the individual mandate, or the individual mandate and some related provisions, then there’s basically a showdown: the law exists. The money for it will be spent. Dems won’t permit repeal. So either Republicans and Democrats have to agree on some fix or states have to figure out how to run their insurance markets without a national-level individual mandate.
In your column you write that Obama would like to apply Race to the Top to other areas of policy. What do you mean by this?
In previous budgets, the Obama administration has proposed expanding the “Race to the Top” model -- in which states are given money in return for reforms -- to higher ed, to pre-k, to juvenile justice, to transportation. More on that here.