Since Franklin Roosevelt busted the curve, presidents have generally tried to avoid the 100-day measure of their effectiveness. But as President Obama’s second term reaches this milestone, his legislative yield is particularly paltry.
Obama overplayed his hand on sequestration, with dire warnings that were roundly ignored. Then he poured his limited reserves of passion into a modest gun control measure that failed. Immigration reform remains a possibility only because of Obama’s irrelevance to the process. Any sign of excessive presidential enthusiasm would cause even pro-reform conservatives to bolt. And a grand budget bargain involving serious entitlement and tax reform remains unlikely at best. Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, recently conceded: “I can’t tell you what the specific path is at this moment.”
Obama has turned in desperation to the culinary arts — a series of White House dinners with legislators. Yet no amount of tiramisu is likely to break the logjam. More practically minded Democrats are hoping for decisive gains in the 2014 midterm elections. But a weak economy and middling presidential approval ratings are set against them. And Obamacare seems more of an electoral drag as it moves closer to full implementation. “The law’s basic method,” Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru remind us, “is to transform insurance into a product that few would voluntarily buy and then force everyone to buy it.”
Some conservative Republicans — convinced that the only duty of an opposition party is to oppose — seem pleased with this turn of events. They would urge their party to finish the job by killing immigration reform and halting budget negotiations.
This approach lacks only one element: an actual strategy. Defeating Obama is no longer a sufficient Republican goal. What Mitt Romney couldn’t manage is eventually accomplished by the 22nd Amendment. Instead, Republicans face a series of complicated political tasks.
First, they must manage to get back to George W. Bush’s level of support among Latinos — somewhere in the low- to mid-40s — and eventually compete for a majority of that vote. The alternative is political irrelevance at the national level. Sen. Marco Rubio’s immigration-reform effort is not sufficient to get Republicans to their goal. But if Republicans sabotage this effort, they will be discredited. The embrace of reform would earn Republicans a hearing. Given the current 13-year path to citizenship in the bill, the GOP would then have three presidential cycles to reposition itself as the party of immigrant aspiration.
Second, Republicans must manage the difficult task of becoming more socially inclusive without becoming socially liberal. Much of the party’s base is in a pew on a Sunday morning, and this isn’t going to change. But there is no reward in being the aggressors in the culture war. Any coalition that includes the young will need to accommodate diverse opinions on gay rights. And a truly pro-life party will also be committed to the rights and dignity of the poor and vulnerable. Moral conservatives gain credibility through consistency.
Third, Republicans must manage to stand for long-term fiscal sanity while promoting social and economic mobility. There is no economic value or political appeal in austerity for its own sake. One reason the health entitlement crisis is so dangerous is that it progressively squeezes domestic discretionary spending. Republicans need to accompany proposals for structural entitlement reform with creative measures to encourage education, job training and entrepreneurship.
All of these Republican goals demand a response more sophisticated than simple obstruction. For the GOP, politics is not a zero-sum game — and I don’t mean this in a good way. It is entirely possible for Obama to lose on a variety of issues and for Republicans to lose as well, in ways that make future victories less likely. Supporting a perfectly constitutional expansion of gun background checks might have been an opportunity for Republicans to display some rationality in public, even if it marginally aided a lame-duck president. Undermining immigration reform would be a terrible miscalculation, even if Obama is hurt.
At the end of eight years, Americans will probably be tired of Obama and perhaps of liberalism. The GOP will get another look. It would be a final victory for the president if Republicans focused on defeating him rather than on deserving victory.