Obama may be on his own if he wants big changes

President Obama joined MTV, CMT and BET for a townhall in an attempt to further energize the youth vote in the final stretch before the midterm elections
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 12:31 AM

As the tumultuous first two years of Barack Obama's presidency draw to a close, the president and his advisers have begun to puzzle over a difficult question: Now what?

There are many things Obama has said he would like to accomplish in the next two years of his term - overhauling the nation's immigration laws, passing energy and climate-change legislation, and shrinking the federal deficit, to name a few. Yet doing so may be exceptionally challenging, if even possible, given the skeptical mood of the public and the coming shake-up in Washington.

Next month's midterm elections will leave the president with fewer friends in Congress, and possibly a Republican majority in one or both chambers emboldened to thwart his plans.

In White House strategy sessions, Obama's senior staffers are debating their options. They have not yet settled on a specific plan, and the president has not spelled one out. How Obama approaches the coming years will depend in part on whether Democrats lose Congress or survive with narrower majorities. Yet no matter how the elections turn out, a consensus has emerged in the West Wing that Obama will have to set out goals that do not rely as much on Congress to advance his unfinished reform agenda. Even with his party now in control on Capitol Hill, Obama has had difficulty winning approval for big initiatives such as health care and financial regulation. After the grueling midterms, and with diminished ranks, Democrats will probably return for the new Congress in January more cautious.

"Clearly the agenda carried out by the administration in the first two years - the agenda that it wanted to do rather than had to do - will be smaller these next two years," said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a policy adviser in the Clinton administration. "But there is still an agenda of necessity with Congress and the administration will not be able to just avoid it entirely."

One senior administration official said that the courts may play an expanded role in the next two years, as the president defends his health-care and financial-regulation reform laws against legal challenges brought by opponents who hope to undo them or dial them back.

Executive force

The president could also choose to use - or threaten to use - his executive powers to get some of what he wants done without seeking congressional approval. Last year, he backed EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson's decision to enact tough new regulations on carbon emissions unless Congress takes action. Similarly, President George W. Bush, faced with opposition from Democrats in Congress, made significant changes to federal environmental rules to make it easier for the oil and gas industry to explore on federal lands.

Obama's lack of a specific plan for the second half of his term contrasts with the blueprint he drew up as he prepared to take office in 2009. He and his advisers carefully plotted what they intended to do and in what order they intended to do it. Health care was the centerpiece, of course, but Obama even instructed aides to begin making lists of possible nominees for the Supreme Court.

One thing the president did not plan for then was the public's growing discontent with his focus on health care and other priorities as the economy continued to falter - which led to a drop in his approval rating and helped fuel a backlash against Democratic candidates. Obama's advisers are now perhaps reluctant to make decisions until they can survey the volatile political environment in which they will play out.

"The biggest difference is going to be that we had a unique situation as we took office that required us to do extraordinary things that were not particularly popular," said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. He cited the $814 billion stimulus measure and the decision to throw a multibillion-dollar lifeline to Chrysler and General Motors. "Part of what the next two years will be about is implementing what we have done these first two years," Gibbs said.

The party in power has historically lost congressional seats in midterm elections, forcing presidents to alter tactics and rethink policy ambitions. But history also shows that presidents have revived their fortunes during times of divided government (if that is what Nov. 2 brings) when both parties have a political stake in compromising to get things done.

Two models

Two of Obama's Democratic predecessors, Harry S. Truman and Bill Clinton, grappled with the question of whether to seek confrontation or compromise with an oppositionist Congress - and took different approaches.

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