With several controversies fading and a period of intense foreign travel over, President Obama is narrowing his focus this summer to two issues, immigration and the economy, that could help determine the success or failure of his second term.
On immigration, Obama is devising a new, more public strategy that will include events in states with large Latino populations, advisers say — part of an aggressive effort to pressure House Republicans who remain skeptical of proposed changes. The White House intends to rally GOP constituencies friendly to the cause, as well, including business and evangelical groups.
The president also plans a series of summertime events focused on steps the government can take to drive economic growth, aides said. Many in the White House see a Sept. 30 deadline to renew government funding as probably the last opportunity for Obama to scale back the deep domestic spending cuts known as sequestration before the 2014 midterm elections.
The two-pronged focus comes after months of firefighting and distractions for Obama, who spent the first half of the year forming a new Cabinet and zig-zagging from one issue to another, including an unsuccessful bid for new gun regulations. The spring also brought a spate of controversies that raised questions about the administration’s credibility, forcing the president to address why IRS employees scrutinized conservative groups and whether the government was spying on millions of Americans.
White House officials say they do not discount the difficulties that lie ahead. Abroad, Obama is struggling with how to apprehend fugitive leaker Edward Snowden and how to respond to turmoil in Egypt. At home, the administration is encountering problems in launching its landmark health-care expansion. And the president’s greatest ambitions must run through the Republican-controlled House, where there is little appetite for compromise.
But advisers think that some of Obama’s most vexing political problems have faded in recent weeks, leaving him ready to begin the focused push on immigration and the economy. His aides say the president is buoyed by the Senate’s passage of an immigration bill and by a steady stream of positive economic news, including a report Friday showing robust job growth.
“When you’re toiling in the vineyard through a tumultuous spring, it can be hard to see it all coming together,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. But now, she said, “you can see it coming together.”
Still, Obama continues to face strong opposition among congressional Republicans, particularly in the House. If he continues on his current path, some GOP lawmakers say, they will make it as difficult as possible.
“We’re going to continue to be very aggressive in serving as a check and balance against the Obama administration. That’s what the country said in November,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), a conservative leader, referring to continued Republican control of the House. “We’re very far apart.”
Amid a busy June — which included trips to Europe and Africa, a high-level summit with Chinese leaders in California, and a major speech on climate change — Obama and his aides began taking stock of the first half of the year and making plans for the second, according to an official familiar with the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
The president has faced sharp criticism from some fellow Democrats that he gave away too much in a tax deal at the start of the year and did not stop sequestration. But Obama’s advisers say they are satisfied that they have been able to wrestle the short-term deficit to the ground, in part by raising taxes on the wealthy, and make lower tax rates for the middle class permanent; they are also relieved that the Senate passed the immigration bill “with fewer near-death experiences” than feared.
White House officials are hopeful that a slowdown in health-care costs will have staying power, and they see last month’s Supreme Court ruling against a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act as a victory.
But Obama has made clear to his team that he will try to focus as much as possible in the coming months on his economic and immigration goals, aides said.
“The president and the staff always knew that the first half of the year was going to be focused on issues that were important — such as guns, immigration and overseas travel — but not necessarily bedrock middle-class economic issues,” Palmieri said. “We still have a lot of work to do to get immigration done, but, as planned, we expect to have the ability to focus on core middle-class economic issues in the second half of this year.”
In the coming weeks, Obama faces a number of difficult decisions, including whom to appoint as Federal Reserve chairman — a choice whose impact will last beyond his presidency — and, potentially, how best to honor Nelson Mandela if he dies.
But immigration is likely to dominate much of this month, before the House goes on recess in August. White House officials say the president will take a more public role than he did amid the Senate deliberations because a large faction of House Republicans oppose providing a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. With the Senate, where lawmakers in both parties were aggressively pursuing a deal, the White House wanted to be careful not to upset the talks.
Obama will stress that immigration reform would reduce the federal deficit, as the Congressional Budget Office recently found, aides said.
“We’re going to ramp up the heat on the House to get this done and to create an environment were folks are going to be aware of the price of inaction,” said one senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.
After only occasionally talking about economic initiatives in the first half of the year, Obama also wants to refocus attention on the economy in July and August; budget negotiations are expected to heat up after Labor Day. One of the first tasks will be to restore low student loan rates, which doubled on July 1 after lawmakers and the White House failed to finalize a deal.
The president will embrace what a longtime adviser called an “investment strategy,” underscoring the need for government spending on things like roads and bridges. The administration will also renew its call to end sequestration, although many GOP critics argue that the cuts have had little negative impact on the economy.
In addition, Obama is likely to emphasize a mortgage refinance plan, begin discussing an overhaul of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and talk about the need to confirm Richard Cordray, his pick to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. New executive actions on programs to help teach job skills to workers will be on the agenda, too, officials said.
People close to Obama say he is realistic about the challenges but not agitated by the difficult odds facing his agenda. Freed of the burden of pursuing reelection, they say, he has an eye toward potential compromise beyond this year.
“He’s not satisfied. He has very specific goals for himself and for the country,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime strategist and friend. But, he added, “every time I’ve spoken with him since November, I’ve never . . . found him despairing. He doesn’t view every day as Election Day.”