With yesterday’s announcement of the president’s gun control measures and the upcoming major initiatives on immigration, it’s worth taking a moment to check the political calendar and evaluate the atmospherics in Washington.  It’s my judgment that on domestic issues, the president has less than 18 months of effective governance remaining in his tenure as president. 

By the spring of 2014, Democratic and Republican primaries for governor, Senate and House races will begin to take place, and the ballots will be set for November 2014. By that time, the issues that will dominate the races will largely be set and the U.S. government, both at the federal level and in most states, will be in campaign mode. No one will do anything politically risky, and everyone in Washington will be talking about what an independent actor they are. President Obama will be regulated to fundraiser-in-chief, and used as a tool to increase voter turnout in the closing weeks of the midterm campaigns. 

If history is any guide — and I believe it usually is — the Democrats will lose seats in Congress in 2014.  Charlie Cook states that, “In the six ‘six-year itch’ elections since World War II, the party in the White House has averaged a 29-seat loss in the House and a six-seat (actually 5.6) loss in the Senate.”  So in all probability, Republicans will retain the House majority in 2014, and Republicans will pick up a few Senate seats, further weakening Obama’s hand in Washington. 

And, oh by the way, starting in the early summer of 2014, a host of Republican and Democratic leaders will begin earnest efforts to build presidential campaigns to replace Obama in 2016.  Which gets us back to our window of less than 18 months for him to do something.  It’s not too late, but I don’t see where momentum might be gathering for the president to have any significant achievements or victories in the legislative landscape. 

The dominant issue in the United States is the economy — it always is, but this year, it is even more so because the economy is so bad.  So far, the president appears to be sticking to petty ideological gripes about taxes.  He doesn’t appear to have any appetite for seducing Republicans to help pass meaningful budget reform, and he doesn’t have a unified Democratic Party that has a common purpose beyond taunting and insulting Republicans.  Given the magnitude of our problems and the potential we all thought Obama had four years ago, this is a dismal forecast. Our big problems require big solutions, and given the time constraints and the realities of how Washington works, I don’t see how anything big gets done. 

If the reports are correct, President Obama will appoint Denis McDonough as White House chief of staff. I think it’s a good pick. Obama has had good talent in the White House chief of staff’s office, although some have been granted more authority than others. McDonough is a savvy pro who’s been around and who has always earned additional authority wherever he’s been. While foreign policy has been his career priority, he’s worked in offices where his exposure to the personalities and leaders from both parties on Capitol Hill will be of value. Obama’s administration still lacks a strong independent personality and voice on economic issues. So let’s keep an eye on who McDonough brings into the White House as an economic adviser.