Waiting for Godot

Washington Is Waiting for Godot as President Obama’s Second-Term Agenda Stalls

Guns, immigration, the deficit…Obama’s second-term agenda is already in big trouble.

Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty

I was listening to a couple of congressmen chat privately about the prospects for immigration reform, and they agreed that the time had come to roll out a bipartisan plan in the next week or two.

What was striking was how optimistic they were that the Senate was on the verge of cutting a deal, which in turn would boost their efforts to pass a bill in John Boehner’s House.

Sure enough, on Monday morning, The Washington Post quoted sources as saying that the Senate’s so-called Gang of 8 was still laboring over language that “could delay the introduction of a bill.” This undermined the assurance of Chuck Schumer, one of the gang members, that “we are on track” and “hopefully” could finish a bill by the end of this week.

Rarely in modern history have so many in Washington labored so hard and produced so little. On every major item on President Obama’s agenda, there is a flurry of activity that may amount to nothing.

The gridlocked capital seems unable to act except in an emergency, and sometimes not even then, as we saw with the brief plunge over the fiscal cliff on New Year’s Day. The elusive breakthrough is always next week, next month, after the next recess, as soon as this gang or that group reaches a tentative agreement on the possibility of proceeding.

The pundits view immigration reform as having the best shot at success, since the Republican Party has a strong incentive to repair its battered image among Hispanic voters. But it has been like waiting for Godot.

Political reporters routinely overestimate the prospects for reform because they’re constantly talking to lawmakers and aides who believe a deal is just around the corner—until it’s not. How many times did we read that Obama and Boehner were going to reach a grand bargain on spending and taxes?

Of course, writing a 1,500-page immigration bill is difficult. The Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have to agree on the scale of a guest-worker program. Conservatives more concerned with border security must hammer out triggers and timetables with liberals more worried about a path to citizenship for the 11 million already here illegally. There’s a reason that every attempt has failed since Ronald Reagan signed a 1986 immigration bill that did not solve the problem. The congressmen of both parties that I was with were acutely aware that once they go public with their now-secret bill, they will give every interest group in the country something to mobilize against.

Gun control is another top Obama priority that has utterly stalled, despite the president talking up the issue in Colorado last week and meeting on Monday with families of the Newtown victims in Connecticut. “It’s not about politics!” Obama thundered at a town meeting, saying the victims of gun violence “deserve a vote.” But in the face of furious opposition from the NRA, nearly all the elements of his reform package are deemed moribund, most notably a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

The only thing that remains from Obama’s ambitious proposal is stricter background checks on gun purchasers, and that effort has stalled as well. Schumer (again) and Tom Coburn have been unable to reach a compromise on a system in which 40 percent of sales are made at gun shows with no checks on whether the buyer has a criminal or mental-health record—despite overwhelming support in the polls. Oh, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday he'd join other GOP senators in filibustering any vote, meaning 60 votes are needed just for the right to consider the thing. Once again, inertia trumps effort inside the Beltway.

On Wednesday the president will unveil his budget, and the White House has already leaked word that he is trying to compromise with Republicans. Obama is proposing cutbacks to Medicare and Social Security, essentially reviving his last offer to Boehner before budget negotiations, in a potential tradeoff for new taxes.

And how has this seemingly magnanimous gesture been received?

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The left hates it, accusing the president of a premature cave-in, and GOP leaders have dismissed the gesture, saying no way are they going to support higher taxes.

Remember when the administration and the media were wringing their collective hands over the $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that began just over a month ago? Now hardly anyone is talking about the sequester, even as it erodes the economy and contributed to an anemic jobs report on Friday. Having failed to avoid that meat ax, the two sides are unlikely to forge a common-sense agreement now.

All this is taking a toll on the president. While his approval rating is 51 percent in a CNN poll out Monday, only 45 percent have a positive view of his handling of the guns issue, 44 percent on immigration, and 38 percent on the budget deficit.

And how’s this, as noted by The New York Times, for a Catch-22: when Obama hangs back and lets the Hill work on legislation, Republicans accuse him of a lack of leadership, but when he gets involved, Republicans say he poisons the well because they can’t back anything with his stamp on it.

This is obviously no way to run a government. But the state of dysfunction is such that Obama’s second-term agenda could soon wind up in tatters, even if he tells all the members of Congress how good-looking they are.