Rather than a moment of renewal, Monday’s public presidential swearing-in is likely to serve as only a brief cease-fire in the fights that have consumed the White House and Capitol Hill since Republicans swept the House two years ago.
At the core of Obama’s fractious relationship with Congress has been a running battle with Republicans over taxes and spending, and the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration will probably do little to ease the tensions that fuel that struggle.
The last dispute in that fight — the year-end clash over how to avoid the “fiscal cliff” — will bleed seamlessly into the next fight over whether to raise the nation’s $16.4 trillion borrowing limit.
A new proposal unveiled Friday by House Republican leaders to extend the nation’s borrowing authority for the next three months could offer both sides a bit of breathing room. But their goal was not to disengage from the spending battle but to boost GOP leverage as discussions roll into the spring.
What happens in the next 90 days on that front could prove critical to the fate of the rest of Obama’s legislative agenda, including attempts to reform the nation’s immigration system and institute sweeping new gun-control laws.
Second-term presidents usually enjoy a post-election glow of up to eight months, said James A. Thurber, a professor who studies Congress and the presidency at American University.
“He’ll have barely a month,” Thurber said of Obama, arguing that the debate over the fiscal cliff, in which Republicans unhappily agreed to allow taxes to rise on those making more than $450,000 a year, has left Washington with a toxic hangover.
“I don’t like the cliff analogy. I think it’s been more of an avalanche,” he said. “We’ve had an avalanche of work that really undermines his political capital and undermines the capacity to come together.”
The fights over spending could swamp Obama’s call last week for new background checks for gun buyers, a reinstituted ban on assault weapons and a restriction on high-capacity magazines.
House Republicans, deeply opposed to new gun-control laws, said they spent virtually no time on the topic at a closed-door retreat in Williamsburg last week where they sketched out legislative plans for the next year.
Broad changes to the nation’s immigration laws would seem to have brighter prospects in Congress. At the retreat, Republicans were told by several speakers that the party must join with Democrats to support immigration reform or risk becoming a permanent minority as the number of Latino voters grows.
But there exists significant opposition among some Republicans to changes that could be seen as amnesty for people who entered the country illegally. Changes will require a level of across-the-aisle cooperation between the White House and individually supportive Republicans rare over the past two years.