Is Obama’s biggest problem … Obama?

July 12, 2013

For the White House, immigration reform perfectly encapsulates the most frustrating reality of President Obama’s second term: If it’s to be a success, Obama needs to stay out of it — or at least out of the parts that involve Congress.

No, you blink first. (Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images)
No, you blink first. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s the message he’s gotten from Democratic and Republican legislators alike. In the New Yorker, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey recounted a White House meeting at which he told Obama how Republicans would respond to public appeals on immigration. “Right now, if you put out your bill, they will feel like they’re being cornered,” he said.

Obama wasn’t happy, Menendez recalled. “He basically said, ‘After you guys pushed me so hard in not-so-subtle tones, being critical at times about lacking leadership, now you’re asking me to hold off?’ And so we took the browbeating for a little while and then I went back and said, ‘I understand why you’re upset and how you might feel this way.’ ”

That’s Obama’s second term in one quote. In a matter of months, he went from stomping the Republican Party in the 2012 election to "I understand why you're upset and how you might feel this way." Ouch. The worst part for White House staff is that Menendez is right — and they know it.

This is perhaps the most important and least understood fact in today's Washington: Presidents polarize. As the effective leader of one of two political parties, the president is inevitably a polarizing figure. And Obama himself is a special case. Last year, a Gallup poll found a difference of 76 percentage points in how Republicans and Democrats assessed his administration. That tied the gap measured in the fourth year of George W. Bush’s term as the most polarizing on record.

Frances Lee, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, has studied the effect of presidential polarization on the U.S. Congress. In her book “Beyond Ideology,” she shows that when the president announces his position on an issue — even an uncontroversial one — it increases the likelihood of a party-line vote.

“Whatever people think about raw policy issues, they’re aware that presidential successes will help the president’s party and hurt the opposing party,” Lee told me. “It’s not to say they’re entirely cynical, but the fact that success is useful to the president’s party is going to have an effect on how members respond.”

That effect is not, from the president’s perspective, all bad. It makes it easier for him to corral members of his own party, as Obama discovered from 2009 to 2010, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate and passed the stimulus, health-care reform, Dodd-Frank financial regulations and much more.

But today’s intense polarization means that most any bill associated with Obama is automatically targeted for defeat by Republicans. Policy compromise, as the White House has found out again and again, isn't enough to overcome the zero-sum world of modern politics. So in Obama’s second term, in which Democrats have no real shot of recapturing control of Congress, the single biggest impediment to Obama’s legislative agenda might be ... Obama — or at least the Republican reaction to Obama.

Jon Favreau, who in February stepped down as Obama’s chief speechwriter, said that dealing with the Republican Party’s reflexive opposition is a pervasive reality in the White House. “People take a very realistic approach to it,” he said. “They’re not frustrated or upset. It’s more, ‘This is just the way things are and this is how we’ll deal with it.’ The strategy always comes to ‘What gives us the best chance to get something passed?’ ”

That process begins with taking Congress’s temperature. “If it looks like there’s a path to something passing, then, as in immigration reform, he’s got to step back,” Favreau said. That doesn’t mean Obama has to keep mum. But he does have to keep himself out of the headlines. “All of our immigration speeches have been very toned down,” noted Favreau.

There is still plenty the White House wants to accomplish that has no chance of passing Congress. That’s when the speechwriting team can unleash the rhetoric — and the president. “When it doesn’t look like there’s a path forward, you light a fire under these guys by going to the public and making your case,” Favreau said. “That hasn’t worked as much. But when you have a situation where you don’t see the votes for something passing, there’s no other option than going to the public.”

Global warming fits that category. “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society,” the president railed in a recent speech. You won’t hear Obama use that kind of derisive language when he talks about immigration. A presidential put-down is generally indicative of a legislative lost cause.

Yet the background strategy hardly guarantees success. In fact, in most cases, failure is probable, which simply underscores that in a highly polarized era, divided government makes big, new laws unlikely.

It hasn’t always been that way. Historically, divided government has achieved as much as unified government. But the current era defies that trend. The 112th Congress — which served from January 2011 to January 2013 — passed 220 laws, making it the least productive Congress on record. So far, this Congress is on track to set a new record for doing nothing.

Congress appears to be growing comfortable with its paralysis. Last week, legislators couldn’t manage a relatively simple legislative fix to stop interest rates on student loans from doubling — an outcome that both parties had publicly sworn to prevent. But nothing got done and, on July 8, the rates doubled. And this wasn't one of those cases where legislators were huddled in tense, round-the-clock negotiations. Congress didn’t bother showing up for work that week. And Obama knew full well there was nothing he could do to force them to compromise.

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Sarah Kliff · July 12, 2013