I wonder what President Obama was contemplating as he joined the four preceding Presidents to formally open George W. Bush’s Presidential Library in late April. Perhaps he was disquieted about the legislative travails suffered during negotiations with Congressional Republicans on the budget deficit and gun control, or maybe he was comforted by the bipartisan negotiations to move forward on immigration reform, or even the sudden resurgence of security as an issue in the wake of the tragedies in Boston.
Regardless, it is clear that President Obama is a man with many plans for his second term in office. While questions remain as to what he can meaningfully achieve vis-à-vis the inexorable passage of his term, when we evaluate the broad suite of policies in his legislative agenda, what’s notable are the common factors that stand as impediments to progress. Moreover, what will be his legacy as President?
Let’s firstly consider the budget, long the millstone around Obama’s neck. As during his first term, it seems as though deep-seated polarisation between the President and his Republican counterparts in Congress will be the biggest impediment to progress on achieving a ‘grand bargain’ to reduce the deficit. Dr Kumuda Simpson of The University of Melbourne considers progress on the negotiations unlikely and that the President “could face a similarly obstructionist Congress as he did in his first term.” Others such as former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, have suggested this can be attributed to Obama’s inefficacy as a negotiator with Republicans in Congress. One further element to consider, as Mike Lillis of The Hill outlined, is reticence from Congressional Democrats to sacrifice long-cherised elements of their legislative agenda, such as Obama’s proposed changes to Social Security that would reduce payments for future beneficiaries through a different calculation for inflation. It follows that for all the promise of robust legislation, if Barack Obama can’t keep Democrats in line and start doing a better job of courting Republicans, then the deficit will remain as a blot on his legacy.
On the other hand, considering the issue of gun control we observe deeper personal investment from the President, despite its recent legislative failures. Obama’s vigorous nationwide canvassing for legislation that would expand background checks for gun purchases, the bully pulpit – his favoured campaign device, has so far failed to win enough support in the Senate to pass the legislation. As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post suggests, maybe such legislation requires a softer touch, where others in Congress take the lead on this reform. This has proven effective in bipartisan immigration legislation, where prominent Senate Republicans such as John McCain and Marco Rubio worked with Democratic Senate leaders to advance comprehensive reform to address the alarming situation of 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. In fact, in the short term, immigration legislation presents political opportunities for Obama to demonstrate an ability to cooperate with Congressional Republicans while adding a significant policy landmark to his legacy. But considering immigration and gun reform together, we see the inherent trade-off Obama has to make as President; to bolster his legacy does he focus on the policies he is passionate about or the proposals that have the best chance of implementation?
Moreover, how much time does the President really have to implement his broad agenda anyway? As Jonathan Allen of POLITICO asserts, it’s now or never. Inevitably the window in which action on these issues is possible closes as the 2014 mid-term campaigns heat up later this year and public attention turns to the 2016 Presidential Election. Placed in the context of a Republican-controlled House it seems the best way to advance Obama’s legacy would be for Democrats to win big next year, although Dr. Simpson suggests this is unlikely, “especially when polarizing issues such as gun control could dominate,” when it comes to the ballot box.
Whilst we’ve evaluated the mixed prospects for progress on the budget deficit, gun control legislation and immigration reform all in the face of Congress’ intransigence, perhaps the key to Barack Obama’s political legacy lies in the biggest act of his first term – Obamacare. As Dr. Simpson suggests, the successful implementation of Obamacare “could very well be his greatest legacy as President.” With upwards of 30 million Americans potentially receiving health insurance under the legislation, it’s clearly in the President’s interest to see it successfully rolled out, implemented and outlast his term and that of future Presidents and Congresses.
For a President who’s consistently defied conventional wisdom throughout his career, what comes of his second term will be just as fascinating as his first. His ability to overcome the political barriers to his reform will be crucial, but what will form his political legacy, and what will be absent from it when it comes time to open Obama’s Presidential Library years from now, is anyone’s guess.