Obama: Lessons Learned Will Guide Second Term

Obama: Lessons Learned Will Guide Second Term

By Alexis Simendinger - September 21, 2012

Learning on the job is a theme President Obama returns to with some frequency, not just because journalists press him to describe his mistakes in the last four years, but because Americans living through tough economic times want to know how Obama might apply the lessons of his first term if re-elected.

The president, questioned Thursday by Latino journalists from Univision, along with Hispanics who posed questions via Facebook, returned to his “lessons learned” explanations when pressed to explain not if but why he “broke” a 2008 campaign “promise” to tackle immigration reform in his first term.

Mitt Romney and Republicans have been arguing that as president, Obama has been in over his head, naïve about leadership on the international stage, a rube about business and how jobs are created in the private sector, and a piñata when it comes to dealing with a divided Congress.

So when Obama -- who possesses a healthy regard for his own skills -- speaks publicly about mistakes he’s made, lessons he’s learned, and how he would govern differently if granted a second term by voters, ears perk up. Considering potential threats globally, and the entrenched disagreements in Washington about a fiscal guillotine in January, the incumbent’s self-assessments become important.

In Miami on Thursday, the president said his “biggest failure” as president was not getting immigration reform into law.

Sensing a Democratic play for Latino votes (where Obama enjoys a significant advantage over Romney), the Republican National Committee quickly criticized Obama for shuffling his customary ordering of first-term stumbles. Usually the president tops his “errors” list with communications problems in 2009 and 2010, specifically his failure to bring the country around to support controversial policies, such as the $800 billion stimulus measure and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare).

“My biggest failure so far is, we haven't gotten comprehensive immigration reform done, so we're going to be continuing to work on that,” Obama said at the University of Miami as the Univision audience applauded. “But it's not for a lack of trying or desire, and I'm confident we're going to accomplish that.”

The president reminded his audience (one day after Romney spoke during a similar session with Univision) that being the nation’s chief executive is not akin to being a magician. “What I've always said is, as the head of the executive branch, there's a limit to what I can do.”

Presidents need 60 votes to break filibusters in the Senate, and they do not control the decisions of the judiciary, he said. “There's the thinking that the president is somebody who is all-powerful and can get everything done. . . . We have to have cooperation from all these sources,” he said. “I am happy to take responsibility for the fact that we didn't get [immigration reform] done, but I did not make a promise that I would get everything done 100 percent when I was elected as president. What I promised was that I would work every single day as hard as I can to make sure that everybody in the country, regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they come from, that they would have a fair shot at the American Dream. And I have. That promise I kept.”

Another lesson learned, he suggested, is that presidents may be in the dark about activities in the executive branch, but are nonetheless accountable. He defended Attorney General Eric Holder for calling a halt to the ill-conceived “Fast & Furious” program at the Justice Department, which Obama said was begun under the Bush administration and then condemned by GOP opponents of the Obama administration.

“The challenge that we have is that at any given moment in the federal government, there may be people who do dumb things. And I've seen it, I promise,” the president said as the audience laughed. “Ultimately I'm responsible.”

Questioners asked how he planned to move major legislation, such as immigration reform, through the next Congress, if the House and Senate look much like the current stalemated legislative branch. The president said he had learned how to be a Washington outsider. Talking softly (or just a lot) to lawmakers doesn’t cut it; it’s better to swing a big megaphone in front of the American people and ask them to referee, he suggested.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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