The week after his reelection, President Obama was a man full of promise and promises: His job-approval rating stood at 54 percent, the 2010 tea party wave that had knocked his first term off balance appeared to have receded, and he seemed as sober about the future as he was hopeful.
“With respect to the issue of mandate, I’ve got one mandate . . . to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try to get into the middle class,” he said at a news conference in the East Room of the White House in November 2012. Obama acknowledged the dangers of “presidential overreach in second terms,” but he put forward an expansive, legacy-building agenda: a major fiscal deal, immigration reform and action on climate change.
Two bruising years later, he has registered progress only on addressing climate change, and a president who once boasted of a barrier-breaking liberal coalition is under fire from his own party as his Republican rivals are poised to make gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
A routine campaign stop Sunday on behalf of Gov. Dan Malloy (D) in Bridgeport, Conn., exemplified this reversal of fortune. As the president spoke, working to rally his party’s base, protesters — including one sporting an “Obama deports parents” T-shirt —interrupted him at least four times.
“I am sympathetic to those who are concerned about immigration,” the president said amid shouts from the audience. “It’s the other party that’s blocked it. Unfortunately, folks get frustrated, then they want to yell at everybody.”
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Obama’s journey from triumphant, validated Democratic hero to a political millstone weighing on his party’s chances is a tale of a second-term president quickly and repeatedly sidetracked by a series of crises — some self-inflicted — and the widely held perception that the White House has not managed them well.
The fallout has led to questions about the president’s effectiveness, his resolve and his general ability to lead, at home and abroad.
“This is an administration that is very good at articulating some of its plans and responses and has delivered good speeches, but translating that into action has been a problem for the past six years,” said David Rothkopf, the author of “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear.” “Right now, the vast preponderance of evidence is that management is not one of the strong suits of this administration.”
Obama’s list of second-term leadership crises is a formidable one: the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov; long waits at Veterans Affairs hospitals; Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s secrets; a pileup of foreign children along the southern border; Islamist terrorists marauding across Syria and Iraq and beheading foreigners, including Americans; and the arrival of the Ebola virus in the United States.
“These are legitimate crises in their own right that have to be dealt with by the president. That’s his job,” said AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer, a White House ally who blames the GOP for blocking Obama’s economic agenda. “But that has dampened his ability to speak out on other issues.”
At a fundraising event in New York in September, Obama talked about “disquiet” in the country despite the improving economy. The reason for that, he said, is that most people “just think government doesn’t seem to be capable of working anymore.”
He blamed Republicans, but it is the president and his party who may pay the heaviest price for that public perception.
About a month after Obama was reelected, his agenda priorities were dramatically altered when 20 children and six adults were killed in a shooting at a Connecticut elementary school. The massacre upended Washington’s political debate and focused it squarely on gun control. Thinking it had a strong hand to play, the White House launched an all-out push to ban assault rifles and require stricter background checks for gun buyers.
“Every president finds that after setting an agenda on the campaign, the agenda is set for them by the world,” said Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way, a centrist think tank that supports stricter gun laws. “This time, the external events dictated the timing of something no one thought they would be taking up.”
But even the enthusiastic embrace of the issue by the White House was unable to deliver results. The Senate rejected all of the president’s gun-control proposals in April 2013, handing Obama an early defeat on an issue that had fixated much of the country.
Inside the West Wing, the loss, while frustrating, was not considered an event that would set a tone of failure for the second term. The president and his advisers remained convinced that they could pursue big, bipartisan deals to cement an Obama legacy.
The president set about trying to woo enough Republican senators to pass key bills with margins large enough to pressure the GOP-controlled House to follow.
Most of the White House overtures quickly fell apart. Then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking Republican Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) began discussing a possible tax-reform proposal. But once the two sides delved into the details, the initiative — along with the broader discussion of a comprehensive fiscal deal — collapsed.
Republicans said Obama’s lack of follow-through, rather than an ideological impasse, was to blame.
That spring, a group of Senate Republicans met with Obama over dinner to explore entitlement and tax-code reform. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) considered such an overhaul a priority, but he had a small side concern: He wanted to urge the president to use his influence with Democrats to prevent a change in the Senate’s filibuster rules. The change would strip the minority party — the GOP now, but maybe the Democrats next year — of its power to block or slow presidential nominations.
At the dinner, Alexander said, he handed Obama a one-page memo making his argument that this administration would not be justified in changing the rules because it had gotten as many nominees approved as previous administrations in similar circumstances.
Aside from a second request for the memo, Alexander said, he never heard back. He was disappointed, and he called the snub indicative of why the White House has trouble getting things done on Capitol Hill. “I would have liked for someone to show me where I was wrong or show me where I was right,” he said.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said the real problem was not disagreement about nominations but GOP intransigence on raising taxes as part of any fiscal deal, suggesting that the differences were substantial and maybe insurmountable.
“If they’re unwilling to move off their core principle, then they are unwilling to compromise, and nothing can get done,” he said.
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) said that Republicans have deliberately let problems “fester” as part of a broader strategy of diminishing “the capacity of government to respond to crises.”
By October 2013, Democrats believed that they had seized the upper hand on fiscal matters, as the GOP forced a 16-day government shutdown, causing furloughs for 850,000 federal workers and costing $2 billion in lost productivity. The shutdown was the most vivid evidence of the depth of antipathy toward Obama in the GOP, particularly in the House. The unwillingness to work with the president on almost any issue has spawned what is known as the “Hope Yes, Vote No Caucus.” These are lawmakers who might be inclined to support compromise measures but vote against them for fear that voters will punish them for working with Obama.
The shutdown was a political disaster for the GOP, but hope among Democrats that they had finally broken the opposition was short-lived, as the White House quickly became consumed by the troubled rollout of the online federal health insurance exchange, which launched Oct. 1, the same day the shutdown began.
Even as Obama and his aides scrambled to fix the Web site in the early days, according to people familiar with the situation, senior Health and Human Services officials did not provide them with accurate information about the depth of the system’s problems.
Although the site was mostly repaired within two months, a White House ally cited the botched rollout as a defining moment because Republicans, who had been reeling after the 2012 election loss, stopped “feeling defeated” and were emboldened once again.
The wreckage of 2013 had similar effects on the combatants: The president’s approval ratings took a nose dive, and Congress’s were even worse. Gallup reported that 42 percent of the public approved of Obama’s performance as the new year dawned.
Inside the West Wing, Obama’s top advisers developed a new strategy based on a memo from Pfeiffer that concluded that the president had acted too much like a prime minister, relying on lawmakers to get things done. In 2014, Obama would hold out one hand to Capitol Hill, but with the other he would more aggressively move the levers of executive power. John D. Podesta, a Democratic strategist with deep Washington experience, was brought aboard as a senior counselor — a signal that Obama’s insular inner circle meant business.
Podesta’s influence was felt early on when the White House introduced an ambitious regulation to cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing utilities — the most far-reaching climate rule ever undertaken by the federal government, which does not need congressional approval.
But whatever momentum the White House hoped to gain from that initiative was cut short as the news cycle was consumed by a crisis along the southwestern border, where tens of thousands of foreign children were crossing illegally. The situation was even more disruptive to Obama’s agenda than the health-care embarrassment; it helped drive the final stake through the heart of his 18-month push for an overhaul of the immigration system.
After Obama was reelected, conventional wisdom in Washington held that the first broad immigration reform bill in three decades was within reach as Republicans sought to repair their image with the fast-growing Hispanic voting bloc. Even after House Republicans blocked a bipartisan Senate immigration bill in the fall of 2013, the White House held out hope that House leaders would relent after the 2014 primary season, when they would be safe from challenges from the right.
But the combination of the border crisis and the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in the primary in June by a tea party challenger running on a staunch anti-immigration platform doomed the chances for a bill.
At the end of June, Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden and announced that he would not wait for Congress and would act on his own to reform immigration laws. That threat sparked anxiety among vulnerable Democrats who persuaded the president in September to back off and wait until after the midterm elections to act.
Immigration advocates, already angry at Republicans, turned their ire on the White House.
“With regard to immigration, I just think the conviction isn’t there,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Every decision that has been made has been based on political calculation. You live by the political sword, you die by it.”
The executive-action delay was designed to protect Democratic incumbents in conservative states, but it put Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) on the defensive with a key constituency in his state, whose population is 21 percent Hispanic.
Udall said in an interview that Latino voters “saw me express my disappointment with the president’s decision to delay. I’ve made it very clear that after I’m reelected, I’m going to be at the doorstep of the White House pushing them to use the executive authority they have to keep families together.”
The White House attempted to regain its footing over the summer by sending the president on the road to connect with ordinary Americans, comparing Obama’s jaunts to a bear breaking free of his handlers.
The goal was to talk about pocketbook issues — the minimum wage, equal pay for women — and cast Washington as consumed by manufactured political controversies. But the tour took on a discordant note when set against a series of international crises: the standoff with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in eastern Ukraine, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and the rise of the Islamic State militant group, whose gruesome executions of two Americans helped persuade Obama to authorize a new U.S. military campaign in Iraq and Syria.
That decision was a major setback for a president who had staked his foreign policy legacy on ending U.S. wars in the Middle East. In late September at the United Nations, Obama noted a“pervasive sense of unease” across the world.
To his critics, the Syria crisis highlighted Obama’s greatest foreign policy weakness: a determination to engage with the world in the opposite fashion from predecessor George W. Bush at almost any cost.
Where Bush rushed into war in Iraq, Obama has been determined to limit U.S. military engagement and rely on diplomatic coalition-building. The president reversed himself in the fall of 2013 on plans to launch airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading even some of his heavyweight former Cabinet members — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Robert M. Gates and Leon Panetta — to question his approach.
“Bush is a leader who didn’t like to think,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global political risk-management firm. “Obama is a thinker who doesn’t like to lead.”
At home, as the president has made his case to voters this fall on behalf of fellow Democrats, he has returned time and again to the improving economy. The United States boasts its lowest national unemployment rate in six years, the stock market is at record highs, and about 10 million people have enrolled in health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
But the argument has largely fallen flat.
John Puckett, co-owner of Punch Pizza, a Minneapolis chain that raised wages above the federal minimum, is stumped about why. Puckett met with Obama’s speechwriters ahead of the president’s State of the Union address in January, and Obama gave the pizzeria a shout-out while announcing plans to increase wages for federal contractors to start what the president called “a year of action.”
Puckett said that business is humming and that Minnesota’s economy continues to grow.
“It’s almost like you’re in a different world when you see the bad polls about how people feel about the future,” he said. “You do look at the national stuff and scratch your head.”
Zachary A. Goldfarb in Washington and Katie Zezima in Colorado contributed to this report.