Obama may be on his own if he wants big changes

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.

Truman chose confrontation. He proposed landmark legislation on civil rights and health care, "knowing that they were dead on arrival" in the Republican-controlled Congress, said Stanford historian David M. Kennedy. He then campaigned successfully against the "do-nothing" Congress.

"That is a strategy that I think is available to Obama," Kennedy said. "He can't overdo it, but he could bring forward one or two big legislative proposals, and he has a platform ready made for him then to blame Republican obstructionism."

Clinton, by contrast, worked with Republicans for more modest legislative measures that appealed to the middle class. This is the approach favored by Obama's departed chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, a veteran of the Clinton White House. "That may be more suited to his temperament and instincts given that he has largely proposed that over the past two years," Kennedy said.

Truman and Clinton both were returned to office. Administration officials said that Obama, whose time in office has revealed a tension between his big reform ambitions and his political pragmatism, will probably settle on a path between the two.

Not all the remaining items on Obama's to-do list are politically popular. Cap-and-trade energy legislation and an immigration overhaul, for instance, are divisive even among some Democrats.

One strain of discussion within the White House is how to make them more palatable - or how to blame Republicans if they end up stalling in Congress.

For much of the year, Obama has spoken in favor of energy and immigration reform, gathering advocates of each periodically at the White House for meetings. Yet he never made either a priority after the long, politically costly fight over health care.

Some senior advisers have argued that an immigration overhaul could be accomplished a piece at a time instead of all at once. Obama, they say, could begin by trying to building support for the DREAM Act, for example, which would allow minors in the country illegally a path to permanent residency.

If Obama pushes through that measure, first proposed nine years ago, it could help energize Latinos and such politically powerful labor groups as the Service Employees International Union, whose more than 2 million members have lobbied for immigration reform. But in the past Obama has said repeatedly that only comprehensive reform can fix what he calls "our broken immigration system," and senior advisers have said publicly that an immigration overhaul cannot be broken into pieces.

Administration officials believe that energy reform - a wish of the environmental community, another key Democratic constituency - would be even more difficult to accomplish piecemeal. For a cap on carbon emissions to work, the advisers say, it must be accompanied by the creation of a market to trade carbon credits.

Whatever Obama's ambitions on immigration and the environment, Democrats on Capitol Hill are pressing him not to lose sight of what they say must be his top priority: the economy.

"I would really hope - and I know a lot of members in our caucus hope - his first effort would be to focus on jobs," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a vice chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"Up next is his reelection," she said. "Right now we're being measured on our results. The next round will be his results."

Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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