One of the most interesting features of President Obama’s second-term policy agenda is that he doesn’t seem to think he needs one.
OK, he got some of his increase in the top tax rate for high earners even before his second term started. He campaigned on it; it’s policy; that counts. And immigration policy reform seems to be a possibility not too far down the line. And of course there’s gun control, even if it looks doubtful that anything of substance will come of it.
But about gun control: Where did that come from? The tragic answer is Newtown—no more, no less. In the absence of the mass murder of little children, gun control would be no more than the latent but nettlesome Democratic ambition in Washington that it has been for decades. It certainly would not be occupying the top of the news cycle, vexing Democrats who have to run in red states in 2014, and arousing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to take on the National Rifle Association in a test of whose ad buys are more potent with wavering senators.
Now, it would indeed be strange if a Democratic White House and Democrats in Congress didn’t look for a policy response to a shockwave like Newtown. Nevertheless, there was no political strategy to pursue gun control in Obama’s second term—merely an opportunity that presented itself. That politicians seize opportunities will come as a surprise to no one.
The more revealing question is what exactly Newtown displaced among the Obama administration's second-term priorities. The answer seems to be: nothing. It’s not at all clear that the administration feels any sense of loss at the opportunity costs of spending several months on gun control. Maybe gun control is more important than anything else right now. But there also doesn’t seem to be “anything else” right now.
Which raises a rather intriguing possibility: There’s acting opportunistically, which politicians are wont to do; and then there’s adopting a political strategy of opportunism, which is an entirely different matter. Politically speaking, Obama would actually have some very good reasons to turn policy-making into an ad hoc matter of seizing opportunities, at least through the 2014 election.
Such a strategy would, of course, run afoul of the Washington brahminical caste. First of all, presidents are supposed to have big policy agendas. In the second term, a president’s attention to turns to matters of legacy, which must needs rest on substantive policy achievement, no? Add to that the current perception that our need for entitlement reform and long-term deficit reduction is great, and the tut-tutting over inaction could become unbearable. Then, too, it’s an article of political faith in Washington that a second-term president has only a short period of time to pursue a policy agenda before the influence of a lame-duck White House inevitably fades.
By this reckoning, a decision to forgo an early second-term push on a top policy priority is almost unfathomably foolish and short-sighted. Surely there must be something team Obama wants to do. Ronald Reagan had tax reform. George W. Bush pushed hard (albeit unsuccessfully, and with negative political consequences) for his top reelection campaign priority, private Social Security accounts.
A standard GOP line of attack on Obama these days is that he is interested only in campaigning, not in governing. While it’s true that Obama spends a lot of time talking down his opponents and promoting Democratic priorities, the GOP line misses the key point. It’s the distinction between governing (which Obama as head of the executive branch does reasonably effectively and in accordance with his party’s priorities on matters of executive discretion) and working to pass legislation, which is an entirely different matter.
On the legislative front, Obama has a narrow Senate majority that can’t readily break a GOP filibuster on a matter of policy, and he faces a GOP majority in the House that is implacably opposed to his agenda, more or less whatever it might be. Obtaining any legislation from the 113th Congress would require accommodation with these two realities. The question for the president, then, is whether compromise legislation that accommodates the balance of power in Washington is better than no legislation at all. Politically speaking, it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that the answer is no, compromise isn’t worth it. Compromise, recall, is what brought us the sequester, which the GOP seems to like a lot more than Democrats do.
Any deal House Speaker John Boehner agrees to is going to reflect GOP policy priorities as well as whatever the president can get of his own. Now, it’s possible that that might be worthwhile for Obama on immigration, where the GOP is badly split and House legislation will require Democratic votes to pass. But it’s likewise possible that even here Obama will end up preferring no deal to what looks to him like an emerging bad deal.
The Washington Post generated quite a stir with its report a couple weeks ago about how seriously Obama is taking the possibility of Democrats recapturing the House in 2014. If that happens, he will be in a position to singlehandedly rewrite all the conventional wisdom about lame-duck presidents. 2015 will be time for the agenda.
And if the GOP keeps the House, well, Obama can adapt to that reality when it arises. If he wants a policy legacy that reflects divided government, he can have it (including a deal on immigration that will be no worse then than now). And if not, he can still take credit for his tax increase on higher incomes, the Dodd-Frank financial reform, and Obamacare (yes, he really should like that term).
Opportunism in politicians may be as cynical as it is inevitable. But strategic opportunism actually suits the president well in the current political environment.
Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.