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Obama's 2014: Buffeted Yet Buoyed by Late-Year Uptick

Obama's 2014: Buffeted Yet Buoyed by Late-Year Uptick

By Alexis Simendinger - December 29, 2014

President Obama is ending 2014 in better shape than he probably imagined was possible just a few months ago.

U.S. economic performance brightened and corporate profits soared. Consumer confidence rose, along with financial markets. Seemingly in the swell of the December holidays, the president’s moribund job approval numbers floated upward. And millions of people signed up to get or keep health coverage for a second year under Obama’s embattled legislative milestone, the Affordable Care Act.

Growth and other data points headed in more optimistic directions, but millions of Americans continue to insist the country remains on the wrong track. Voters in November overwhelmingly swept Democrats out of Congress, legislatures and governorships, and in the process rendered Washington more politically cleaved, if such a thing is even conceivable.

Immigration reform legislation foundered again this year -- a disappointment to Latinos who reacted by encouraging Obama to ignore Congress and extend administrative relief from deportation to as many as 4 million undocumented migrants.

Siding with evolving public sentiment and a younger generation of Cuban-Americans, the president also ducked a resistant legislative branch to normalize U.S. relations with the Castro regime, ending 50 years of Cold War isolation.

It was also a year during which the president, reacting to bruising federal management bungles and bad press, said goodbye to members of his Cabinet, including former Sen. Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon; retired Gen. Eric Shinseki at the Veterans Affairs Department; and former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius at the Department of Health and Human Services. Along the way, Obama jettisoned the first female head of the U.S. Secret Service, Julia Pierson.

In an abrupt about-face over the summer, he reluctantly propelled the nation into what he conceded will be years of bloody battles in Iraq and possibly in Syria, against a terror group that did not exist in its current form when he ran for president. Even the abandoned U.S. “reset” with Russia in 2014, following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, was not as dramatic as the U.S.-led air war against black-clad Islamic State terrorists, who behead their captives with primitive brutality while exploiting today’s social media for shock value. The president who campaigned in 2008 to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan headed in a direction he did not foresee.

At every turn, 2014 felt messy, contentious and, to many people, erratic. In the twilight of Obama’s presidency, with his influence ebbing, he was a prominent target for complaints and anxieties, both at home and abroad.

“If I spent too much time worrying about critics, I would be not getting a lot of stuff done here,” Obama said last week during an end-of-year interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley.

His reference to “getting a lot of stuff done” was a White House rejoinder to voters who said in exit polls last month that they took a broom to Democrats as a way to force executive-legislative compromise. With Obama as president through 2017, many midterm voters said they thought Washington would be more likely to bridge political chasms if Republicans controlled Congress.

The president’s second-term focus -- by choice and by circumstance -- pivoted to international affairs, including an elusive nuclear deal with Iran; the threat of the Islamic State and the quandary about Syria’s brutal regime; international sanctions against a nationalist Russia; an Ebola crisis in West Africa; global terrorism and international intelligence-gathering; a breakthrough climate pact with China; North Korea’s “cyber-vandalism” against Sony Pictures Entertainment; and thawed relations with the Cuban government.

Yet, for most Americans, kitchen-table worries are No. 1. Some prominent Democrats say they’re worried that Obama’s zeal for legacy achievements, especially those attained without Congress, could hurt Democratic lawmakers or divide a party that is already on its heels. Congress-watchers have suggested that Democrats, now firmly in the minority, will be challenged to stand united, particularly after their post-election criticisms of Obama as a hobbled communicator.

There will be intraparty fights, Democrats concede. But next year’s face-offs between Obama and the GOP-led House and Senate are clear, based on strategies loosely described by Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The next year is likely to be as combative as 2014, with the added drama of anticipated Obama vetoes and the breathless media play-by-play of 2016 presidential politics.

“2015 will bring gridlock in Congress with very little getting done, except maybe a trade bill,” predicted American University’s James Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies and a distinguished professor of government. Yet, while international trade enjoys support in both parties, it also divides Democrats.

Phil Schiliro, a former White House legislative affairs director during Obama’s first term and a veteran House Democratic strategist, believes prospects for an accord on immigration in the remainder of the president’s term remain “hard.” Tax reform, he told RCP, is “really hard, but possible -- a lot easier in some ways than immigration.” On taxes, each party envisions political incentives and leverage before 2016, but corporate and individual changes may wait for the next president, according to analysts from both sides of the aisle.

Republicans, acting in concert in the two chambers, have vowed to invite the president early next year to nullify conservative legislation as a way to showcase their new control of the legislative branch and their ideological disagreements with Democrats.

Obama, as was true of his predecessors, will need to hold his party to protect his vetoes from being overridden by required two-thirds majorities in each chamber. Overriding vetoes is not easy, as history has shown.

Vetoes are a powerful constitutional shield to block legislation during divided government, and can be used as weapons to force legislative compromises. Having wielded his veto powers just twice to date, Obama is poised to get more practice. During President Clinton’s final two years in office, Chuck Brain was the White House legislative director during a contentious period with Republicans in Congress. Brain envisions a series of Obama vetoes that he believes should be strategically worked out with members of the president’s party, and yet be unpredictable enough to keep Republicans guessing.

“We’re going to see in the last two years of this presidency, in this next Congress, the high art of veto politics,” Brain told RCP during a Dec. 11 panel discussion held at American University.

Obama says he’ll make strides using his unilateral powers in the next two years. That means he has new calculations to make after losing the Senate four years after losing Democratic control of the House.

“The numbers that matter to the president are 34 and 146,” Schiliro added. “If the president focuses on that, then he has the ability to have a disproportionate influence on the process. Those are the numbers he needs to sustain a veto.”  

There is also a high probability that the president -- for reasons of politics, his legacy or preferred policy -- will decide he has to veto a bipartisan measure that lands on his desk. A president’s clash with his own party is not unprecedented, Schiliro noted, recalling such an instance at the end of President George W. Bush’s second term. “But because of the tunnel vision that exists down there, it will be played into a much bigger issue than it otherwise is,” he predicted.

First up for Republicans next year in the Senate: a measure that would green-light construction of a proposed TransCanada oil pipeline through the Midwest. After that, GOP lawmakers say they want to send the president measures intended to block administration environmental regulations, hobble the government’s deportation relief initiatives, and take a scalpel to Obamacare.

In other words, 2014, at least by Washington terms, settled little.

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

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