The assessment came as Obama and his aides welcomed the fiscal deal approved by Congress on Wednesday night, which will fund the government until the middle of January, lift the borrowing limit through Feb. 7 and establish negotiations over a long-term budget agreement.
The deal — which White House aides said Obama would have happily signed before the shutdown that began Oct. 1 — meets the president’s demand that his health-care law not be significantly modified in return for a functioning government.
Now administration officials say they hope to persuade a chastened Republican Party, battered in the polls, to support elements of Obama’s languishing agenda.
“There are things that we know will help strengthen our economy that we could get done before this year is out,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday night. “We still need to pass a law to fix our broken immigration system. We still need to pass a farm bill. And with the shutdown behind us and budget committees forming, we now have an opportunity to focus on a sensible budget that is responsible, that is fair, and that helps hardworking people all across this country.”
But the new fiscal deadlines, looming just months away, mean that much of Obama’s energy in the near term is likely to be consumed by budget talks. Democrats worry that the agreement may set in motion a process that runs out the clock on Obama’s ability to secure other policy gains before the 2014 midterm elections.
White House officials say Congress must take on more than one issue at a time given the problems facing the country. They cited the immigration bill, already passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate, as one that would provide political benefits for Republicans.
“The president believes that one of the consequences of this manufactured crisis is that time is taken away from the pursuit of other goals we have as a nation,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
But, he added, “I don’t think that I can sort of place quantitative odds on the prospects of any of this. Congress is a difficult institution to make predictions about.”
Obama has argued throughout his time in office that government, especially during difficult economic times, is essential to improving the nation’s prospects and the lives of individuals. The premise has been severely tested by the 16-day government shutdown, which cost Obama support among independent voters who helped elect him, although congressional Republicans fared even worse.
As he seeks to make the case again, Obama will also be hampered by the problems facing the enrollment process of the health-care law. Millions of visitors to the Web site providing access to the insurance exchanges have overwhelmed the system, a failure of both coding and preparation.
Obama has been meeting daily with advisers responsible for fixing the problems, and officials say he will continue to insist that the work will go on round-the-clock. With the fiscal confrontation over, Republicans will turn more of their attention to those flaws, as may the public.
Even with federal workers returning to their jobs, the administration’s ability to execute policy is undermined by the fact that it still has dozens of posts in key agencies that remain unfilled. There are 183 executive nominations pending in the Senate. At the Department of Homeland Security, more than a dozen top officials — including the secretary — are acting rather than permanent.
New York University public service professor Paul C. Light is pessimistic that Obama can accomplish much in coming months. He said Obama is running out of time to get things done in the face of GOP resistance and the decline of influence that comes with a second term.
“I don’t think that he’ll get anything. His agenda is finished,” Light said. “It’s a political tragedy, because he’s got more knowledge about the job and less juice to get it done.”
Keith Hennessey, who served as President George W. Bush’s top economic adviser, said people shouldn’t overstate the significance of Wednesday’s political accord.
“Substantively, the net result is they’ve pressed ‘pause.’ And that’s it,” said Hennessey, adding that while Obama “played defense successfully,” that does not mean he will now be able to go on offense.
Hennessey said it will be hard for the president and congressional Republicans to reconcile their competing fiscal goals — Obama wants to ease across-the-board budget cuts, known as the sequester, while the GOP wants broad entitlement reforms. In addition, he said, the way the White House will likely campaign for its priorities could deepen the partisan divide.
“If the president portrays this as this battle between light and dark, it’s hard for people to be simultaneously cooperating across party lines on other issues,” he said.
Obama sounded a conciliatory tone Wednesday night. “We could get all these things done even this year if everybody comes together in a spirit of how are we going to move this country forward and put the last three weeks behind us,” he said.
But the president’s greatest opportunities in coming months are likely to come in areas where he can act on his own, both domestically and in foreign affairs.
“His path to success is going to come through every single place that you can squeeze some authority which he has,” said John Podesta, who chairs the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. “That is where you’ve got to focus your attention and where you could spend your political capital.”
The administration’s effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change, for example, will continue without congressional input. The Environmental Protection Agency was hit hard by the shutdown — with 94 percent of its staff furloughed — but EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said it did not have a significant effect on efforts to craft climate rules for new and existing power plants.
“We’re not going to lose any time,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to be able to deliver.”