The expectation is taking hold that this week, and the handful of weeks that follow, are the crucible of the Obama presidency, with showdowns on gun safety, immigration reform, and deficit reduction that will define the Obama legacy.
But if not, there’s always 2014.
Unless the White House and its allies are able to break the logjam in Congress, the president will have no choice but to turn his full attention to the midterm election, where Democrats have an outside chance of taking back the House and providing Obama friendlier terrain to finish out his term and secure his agenda.
The president is already pressing hard, raising money for Democrats, and framing issues in such a way that the GOP is on the short end of the polls on virtually every issue, even same-sex marriage, which used to benefit Republicans. Yet a bipartisan deal on universal background checks for gun buyers remains elusive, and Republicans are threatening to filibuster whatever measures to restrain gun rights are brought to the Senate floor, possibly as early as Thursday—a maneuver that could deny Obama a legislative victory but serve him well politically.
“Winning is best but you can win by losing,” says Paul Equale, an attorney and longtime Democratic activist. “It depends on the perception of how the deal fell apart.”
It is powerful stuff when the Newtown families go on 60 Minutes to talk about transforming their grief into political action, and then fly to Washington with Obama on Air Force One to go to Capitol Hill and confront the 13 Republican senators vowing to block action, along with GOP leader Mitch McConnell. Their visibility, like the 9/11 families in New York a decade ago, takes lobbying to a whole new emotional level that the GOP may find hard to withstand politically.
It’s only April, but the foundation is being built for next year’s November election. As of now, the Democrats are unlikely to take over the House, says Stuart Rothenberg, a center-right political handicapper, “but that could change if Republicans overplay their hand and look like they’re trying to destroy the president. He’s trying to reach out to them, and they look like they don’t want to respond. They look petty and partisan.”
Obama has Republicans on the defensive, pushing them on guns, on immigration reform, and on a budget deal, and that’s good for the president and for Democrats, says Rothenberg. “Democrats have the momentum, they’re dictating the agenda, defining the issues, they’re in the driver’s seat, and the Republicans have to respond—and we don’t know what they’re going to do,” he says. Still, there’s a limit to how much Obama can help his party, because of the way districts are drawn. Democrats need 17 seats to regain the majority, but that’s a tall order when one considers, as Rothenberg does, just 25 vulnerable seats held by each party (26 for the GOP if you count South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, whose bid to return to office will be decided in a special election next month.)
“The president has promised to change the arithmetic,” says Rothenberg. “He did an incredible job turning out voters in 2012; he’s got to do same thing in 2014.”
If Obama comes up empty-handed on his legislative agenda, he will blame the Republicans—and Democrats will run against a Republican Party that is out of touch with the voters. The GOP has helped lower the bar on what the public expects from Congress, so that if Obama gets a vote on various gun measures, it will look like a victory even if legislation fails.
Former Clinton strategist James Carville says the White House is smartly teeing up issues that Democrats love, independents like, and Republicans hate. “I call it the 80/60/20 strategy,” he says. “Because so many Republicans fear being primaried, they have to be for things overwhelming numbers of people are against.” Background checks for gun buyers are a 90 percent issue, and Republicans still can’t support it. “They’re boxed in,” says Carville. “Part of his message I’m sure,” when Obama has dinner with Republicans at the White House Wednesday evening, “is if you want to keep getting hit like this, go ahead.”
Republicans are wary of Obama’s intentions and suspect he’d be just as happy keeping guns and immigration reform as issues to batter them with as a way to take back the House. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is focused on suburban districts in Philadelphia, New York, Orlando, Minneapolis, and Denver, where gun safety efforts are popular and where Democrats can be on the offense. The same goes for districts in California, Colorado, and New Mexico that are increasingly diverse, and increasingly Latino, where Republicans are on the defensive.
“Anytime the president declares war on Republicans, we take that seriously,” says Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee. “But at the end of the day, the more Barack Obama campaigns on a decidedly liberal agenda, the more it’s going to hurt Democrats in the Republican and rural districts they need to win if they have any hope of getting back to the majority.”
Obama is trying every ploy to get the Republicans to work with him: he’s shaming them, he’s courting them, and he’s got the public on his side. “When governing is fun, it’s when the public is with you,” says Carville, “and he’s having fun now.” The day of reckoning will come, though, and if Obama doesn’t get legislation, he will have powerful issues with which to hammer the GOP.