In his second term, President Obama won’t lead or compromise. But he still manages to find ways to keep the country divided.
Obama’s presidency, Politico said last week, “is in a dead zone.” But it’s worse than that. In Congress, most Republicans and a good number of Democrats distrust Obama’s motives. More often than not, it’s unclear whether he wants to enact legislation or exploit an issue to blame Republicans as obstructionists and improve Democratic chances of winning the House in the 2014 midterm elections.
When the House approved a student loan bill in May, backed by Republicans, the president’s first response was to declare he’d veto it if it reached the White House. There was no talk of compromise. Yet its aim was the same as that of a bill Obama favored: prevent the interest rate on student loans from doubling to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent.
Despite this, Obama and Democrats figured they could blame Republicans for allowing the rate to rise. But the issue got muddled in the Senate, where Democrats couldn’t agree on a bill of their own. And they refused to accept a bipartisan bill or a compromise proposed by Senate Republicans. In an earlier era, the president might have stepped in to resolve the conflict. Obama didn’t. He left on a trip to Africa.
Part of the problem with Obama’s second term is his failure to have run for reelection on a specific agenda. He doesn’t have a mandate for anything. He’s stuck with leftovers from his first term, like immigration and global warming, or with an issue—gun control—that dropped into his lap after the Newtown school massacre in December.
He mentioned immigration reform during last year’s campaign, but this wasn’t new. It’s long been an Obama talking point. In 2008, he promised to introduce immigration legislation in his first year in office. After making a half-hearted effort in 2009, he gave up.
Now, as the drive to overhaul the immigration system and give illegal immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship has gained traction this year, he’s regarded as a liability. The more his fingerprints are on a bipartisan compromise, the less its chance of winning Republican votes and becoming law. Obama’s low profile is a mark of “true leadership,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker. This must be the first time a president has been praised for being nearly invisible.
On gun control, Obama ignored an unmistakable lesson from his first term. For him, the bully pulpit is useless. His speeches are unpersuasive. Nonetheless, speeches were his major contribution to the fight to ban “assault” rifles and expand background checks. No wonder it lost.
Speaking of losses, the president failed to put a lid on greenhouse gas emissions when Democrats had lopsided majorities in both houses of Congress in 2009 and 2010. Rather than compromise, he announced last week that he’ll try to reduce emissions by Environmental Protection Agency regulations. This was an act of desperation, not resourceful leadership.
Nor is his insistence on further delaying construction of the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada an act of political fortitude. It’s a favor to a liberal interest group, the environmental lobby. Obama’s claim the pipeline requires further study makes no sense—unless he’s trolling for a study that says the pipeline would be a health menace. So far, every study has found the opposite.
Obama’s preferred issues for his second term have one thing in common: They’re not high on the public’s list of priorities for Washington to take up. There is “a great disconnect” here, Ross Douthat of the New York Times noted last week.
If the president were attentive to the public’s preferences, he’d be concentrating on the economy, jobs, the rising cost of health insurance as Obamacare is being implemented, entitlement reform, and tax reform. After four years, the economic recovery is still lame (1.8 percent growth in the first quarter of this year). But the president, having been reelected with a sluggish economy, acts as if he’s comfortable these days with slow growth and weak job creation.
On foreign policy, Obama has unveiled what might have been a bold initiative during the Cold War. Today, however, cutting the American and Russian nuclear arsenals by one-third is a stale, old, and irrelevant proposal. The Russians are not an imminent nuclear threat. Iran and North Korea are. Their nuclear buildups continue unimpeded.
In Syria, the president has finally agreed to send arms to rebel forces, fearing they were on the verge of defeat. President George W. Bush faced a similar situation in Iraq in 2006, and the difference in their responses is striking. Bush, defying pressure to retreat in Iraq, boldly ordered a new strategy and a troop “surge.” Obama, yielding to pressure to aid the Syrian rebels, acted correctly but not boldly.
In Obama’s case, his second term is like his first, only more so. Sad to say, we face three-and-a-half more years of division and drift.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.