With domestic legacy in lawmakers’ hands, Obama considers his options

Five months after his resounding reelection victory, President Obama is bumping up against the boundaries of his political power in Washington as the core of his second-term legislative agenda moves into a still-divided Congress.

His ability to secure the three high-profile legislative items now confronting Congress — gun-control measures, reform of the immigration system and his long-term budget priorities — is likely to determine his domestic legacy. Obama’s plan now is to ensure that as much of his politically challenging agenda as possible is enacted, after months of effort to frame the policies for the American public and, perhaps more important, for the House and Senate.

Each of the issues that Obama is pursuing is being managed independently by the second-term White House team — an improvisational strategy that is testing the president’s ability to calibrate when to get involved and when to stay out of the way.

But senior administration officials acknowledge that only immigration legislation has a chance of resembling Obama’s ideal bill once it emerges from the Democratic-run Senate and the Republican-controlled House.

On his other major initiatives, they say Obama would settle for less than he claims he wants, a sign that he remains pragmatic in the face of partisan opposition that continues to limit his ambitions.

“I have the same worry about all of these issues, and it’s the Republican House,” said Dan Pfeiffer, an Obama senior adviser.

Obama outlined a broad progressive agenda in his second inaugural address, and he has spoken frequently about the validation that he believes the public gave his plans by reelecting him last year. But second-term presidents traditionally have less than two years to secure a legislative agenda before lame-duck status sets in, and Obama already has seen his popular support shrink in recent months from its post-
election highs.

The election also did not change the basic political dynamic in Washington: a Democratic president in conflict with congressional Republicans, only some of whom believe last year’s election represented a call for compromise.

Each morning, the new White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, reviews the overall legislative progress with senior staff. Inside the White House, each issue has a group responsible for its day-to-day management on Capitol Hill.

The strategy has led Obama to alternately court Senate Republicans — as he did last week in his second such dinner with a dozen of them — and to scold them before outside-the-Beltway audi-
ences, as he did this month in denouncing GOP threats to block gun-control legislation. Advisers say he does so to keep the political momentum alive in Washington for measures with strong public support outside the capital.

After months of campaigning for his agenda, two of his priorities appear to be inching through the Democratic-controlled Senate: a compromise on gun-purchase background checks was announced last week and another deal is expected this week on immigration.

But the budget he announced last week, which proposed restricting cost-of-living increases for Social Security, appears to have angered his own supporters more than it has convinced Republicans. It is an issue on which his strongest political leverage lies in going against his own party.

“I think they put something on the table which no Democrat should ever put on the table,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It’s not okay to be bargained with. The risk is that voters mistakenly identify his budget priorities with all of ours.”

Immigration

After outlining what he wants in an immigration bill, Obama has largely taken a hands-off approach to designing the legislation, now the subject of negotiations among a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight.

The strategy was adopted soon after his second-term inauguration, when Obama, eager to push the issue after winning more than 70 percent of the Latino vote, prepared to introduce his own bill during a visit to Las Vegas to break a long-standing deadlock among Senate negotiators.

Administration officials said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Gang of Eight member, called the White House a few days before the Jan. 29 event. Schumer said the group was close to reaching consensus on a bill and asked Obama to hold off on announcing his own in order to avoid disrupting the talks.

Obama agreed.

“On any issue where there is progress being made, we don’t want to get in the way,” said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the White House legislative strategy and assess its prospects. “Every one of these issues has potential pitfalls and potential opportunities.”

Inside the White House, the issue is being managed by Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council. Administration officials acknowledge that immigration is the issue on which they can be the most patient, given that many Republicans are eager to repair relations with the fast-growing Latino electorate after the November election.

While Obama has allowed Senate negotiators to work on a compromise that can win approval, a White House staff member attends each staff-level meeting to monitor progress and assist with the technical aspects of writing the bill.

“We know we have the upper hand on immigration,” the administration official said, acknowledging that Obama has far less sway when it comes to gun-
control measures and the budget.

Guns

Obama has employed an outside-the-Beltway strategy on guns, traveling to the sites of mass shootings to implore Congress to take action.

White House aides believe that the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., in December, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six adult staff members, created the first political moment in decades for Congress to tighten gun laws. A large majority of the public supports tighter restrictions, but many in Congress would rather not confront the powerful gun rights lobby.

Obama’s aides also worry that the political environment could change quickly unless the president keeps pressuring Congress to act, which he did Monday when he visited the University of Hartford in the company of Newtown parents.

This weekend, for the first time ever, Obama turned his weekly radio address over to someone other than Vice President Biden: Francine Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son, Ben, was fatally shot in Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“Please help us do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy,” Wheeler said, adding that the Senate hasn’t “yet passed any bills that will help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. “

The president began the year with a sweeping set of proposals to ban military-style assault weapons, limit the size of ammunition magazines, require background checks for virtually all weapons sales and increase funding for mental health care, among other issues.

Yet it has become increasingly clear to the administration that most of the ambitious ideas don’t have enough support to pass Congress. The issue is being managed by Biden’s office, and the White House is trying to strike a balance between when to pressure lawmakers and when to accept a compromise, even if it is far more modest than originally envisioned.

Obama took the latter approach last week when he praised a bipartisan deal to expand background checks, while acknowledging it is not as expansive as he wanted.

Advisers concede that the most high-profile of the Obama proposals — renewing the expired federal ban on assault weapons — has virtually no chance of becoming law.

“You have to have an analysis of the possible,” the senior administration official said. “Anything we do on guns is a positive for the country.”

Budget

Obama’s continuing struggles over the budget, perhaps more than anything else, show the limits of his power.

White House officials believe that Obama won the public argument over taxes and spending in the recent presidential election — a long “outside game” that Obama hopes will translate into leverage inside the Beltway.

Now the administration is trying to coax Republicans into a budget compromise that would replace across-the-board spending cuts, known as the sequester, that took effect last month and undercut Obama’s vision for how to build the economy.

Last week, Obama presented a budget that he said did not reflect his ideal view but that he believes might appeal to moderate Republicans looking to put fiscal fights behind them.

The budget fully incorporates the offer Obama made to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in December during “fiscal cliff” talks, embracing policies such as cuts to Social Security benefits that are noxious to many Democrats.

Obama is counting on preliminary discussions to try to reconcile separate budgets passed by House Republicans and Senate Democrats last month, although it’s not clear whether those talks will reach a more serious phase.

As Congress goes through that process, Obama plans to continue reaching out to Republicans who may be open to a deal.

“There’s an awful lot of work to be done,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) after the latest GOP dinner with Obama on Wednesday. “But these overtures are encouraging.”

White House aides are looking for help from lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who organized the guest list for the first dinner with Obama and suggested he would be open to a compromise that raises revenue in exchange for significant entitlement reform.

But White House officials acknowledge there is no clear path toward a deal, meaning that sequester spending cuts are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

The budget process is being handled by the same men who have been running it for several years: National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors. Any progress on the budget will rely on Republicans agreeing to at least some degree of higher tax revenue, White House officials said, by way of scaling back tax breaks that benefit the wealthy.

Administration officials say the only hope of getting an agreement through the House is to have resounding support in the Senate. They concede they will need to work to get even some Democrats on board given the changes to Social Security now on the table.

“The best strategy for the House is to do as well as we can in the Senate,” the administration official said. “Step two is to get as many Democrats as possible.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.
Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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