Obama using new political freedom to tackle domestic agenda


President Obama waves to students after speaking about strengthening the economy for the middle class and measures to combat gun violence during a visit to Hyde Park Academy in Chicago on Feb. 15. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
February 18, 2013

President Obama chided Congress for what he called its “meat cleaver approach” to deficit reduction that will force a series of deep cuts in defense and other spending if it does not come up with a budget agreement by March 1.

In a Chicago gym last week Obama spoke about his own home late last week in Palm City, Fla. — and the trouble it faces.

He warned students and teachers that the fragility of families, the easy violence of guns, and a threatened education system are failing Chicago’s South Side, where he once worked as a community organizer and began his family.

Change “requires us reflecting internally about who we are and what we believe in,” he told the rows of uniformed students lining the blue cinder-block walls in bleachers. “And facing up to our own fears and insecurities, and admitting when we’re wrong.”

More than he ever did in his first term, Obama is describing the country as he believes it should be, not the one it has been for much of the past decade. It is an inspirational technique of the community organizer and of the upstart national candidate he once was.

But Obama has always been good with words and moments. It’s the hard partisan work inside Washington that has so often vexed him. After returning Monday from a golf outing on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, Obama faces a schedule largely free of public events this week, leaving time for the private political work that is key to this kind of governing.

How to bring his skills in the first area to bear on the second is the central question occupying Obama and his senior staff, who hope to harness his post-election political freedom on behalf of a domestic agenda still broadly unpopular among Republicans in a divided Congress.

He is threatening executive action to confront such issues as climate change, a greater concern to the young voters who make up his base than it is to House Republicans. His vast former campaign organization also is mobilizing to fight outside the Beltway for a political agenda whose fate will be determined inside it.

“He no longer feels to me like a prime minister,” said John D. Podesta, chairman of the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely associated with the administration, and a White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration. “He now understands the full range and power of the presidency to get things done.”

Podesta managed Obama’s 2008 post-election transition, and he has traced the president’s arc in office as a sympathetic observer and sometime adviser.

But he and many other Democrats were critical of Obama’s response to losing control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, when a chastened president sought to accommodate an empowered Republican Party. Since then, Obama has seemed at times lost down the rabbit hole of partisan battles that he had once pledged to end.

Some of the Washington work he will face this week and beyond centers on the unresolved fiscal and political questions about the role of government in promoting economic and social change.

His success in those mundane matters will determine how active he can be on behalf of his broader economic agenda, which calls for public spending on education, research, job training and other areas. First is how to avert $85 billion in automatic spending cuts scheduled to begin March 1.

In recent weeks, Obama has drawn bright lines with congressional Republicans over taxes and the federal debt limit that he has stood by with public support on his side. Podesta described his likely approach with Republicans as “trench warfare,” a test of whether Obama has learned how to play a better inside game.

Even outside the Beltway, it is not optimism that Obama is using to support his calls for change, but a blunt reminder of the necessity to adapt to a changing economy.

To an audience of factory workers in western North Carolina a day after his State of the Union address, Obama warned that many of the manufacturing jobs that once sustained Appalachian towns will never return. He criticized the politics of Washington — a trope since his 2008 election — but also pledged to do better at that part of his job.

“I will be back there fighting for you, because there’s nothing we can’t do and no possibilities we can’t reach when we’re working together,” he said. “We just have to work together.”

But the prospects of a breakthrough with congressional Republicans are poor.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Obama has been unable to secure approval for his nominee for defense secretary, former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

Last week, the president complained that 60 votes should not be the new normal for passing legislation or confirming nominees. He sounded more like the old annoyed Obama than the new one who seems to accept partisanship as an enduring feature of his tenure.

“The filibuster has historically been used selectively,” he said during a Google Hangout session, adding that “it’s just unfortunate this kind of politics” are playing out with troops still in Afghanistan.

All reelected presidents emerge with newly grand ambitions and a sense of confidence that only a popular referendum on their record can provide. Obama has been no different.

He warned Republicans as early as his first post-election news conference that he believes his victory was a clear endorsement of his proposals for taxes, spending, immigration and other measures.

The confidence carried over to his State of the Union address last Tuesday, an hour-long speech devoted to closing the income disparity between the rich and the poor. At its core was the populist message that Republicans used in the last election to brand him as a class warrior, a label he no longer seems to fear.

David M. Kennedy, an American historian at Stanford University, was reminded of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call in his 1944 State of the Union address for a “second Bill of Rights,” a hugely ambitious liberal agenda.

“It was dead on arrival, and he knew it,” Kennedy said. “But he was laying down markers. And I couldn’t help but think of that approach as I was listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address the other night.”

Only a few moments — often following national crisis — have opened up enough political space for large social and economic programs to succeed. The Civil War brought Reconstruction, the Great Depression led to the social safety net and activist government of the New Deal, and the civil rights movement inspired the Great Society.

Obama’s historic election at a time of financial crisis and war seemed like another such moment, and with control of Congress, he secured broad health-care legislation that eluded his predecessors. But there has been little since Democrats lost full control of Congress.

How to add to, and cement, his early legislative achievements is Obama’s challenge. But what is considered a big presidential agenda today in an age of austerity and lingering anti-government sentiment is smaller than it once was.

Many of his proposals build on past progress, including his pitch to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour. Others, such as immigration legislation, seek to address long-standing problems that his predecessors were unable to fix.

And one of his most controversial proposals seeks only to renew a lapsed ban on assault weapons. Even those ideas may be too much to secure for Obama, unless he can turn the political world that is into the one he thinks it should be.

“I hope — and at this point it’s only a hope — that the aspirational agenda he has laid out intersects with a political strategy to deliver him a different Congress in two years,” Kennedy said. “Otherwise, it will remain only aspirational.”

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