President Obama, GOP wasting precious time

The 100-day mark is a measure for first-term presidents, not re-elected ones.

Yet the end of April is a propitious moment for an early evaluation of how President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans are meeting the aspirations set out in January.

The answer: Both are falling short.

The White House thought a comfortably re-elected president would have more clout, and face less-resistant Republicans, to strike a compromise on the deficit, avoid the mindless across- the-board sequestration cuts, pass a gun-control measure, and immigration overhaul and get Congress to embark on a broad, new agenda, including universal preschool education, a higher minimum wage, an ambitious infrastructure program and something on climate change.

With the exception of immigration, this agenda is going nowhere.

Democrats as well as Republicans on Capitol Hill say this is partly because of the Obama style, which is unchanged from the first administration: a reticence to negotiate, and an inability to close on what supporters think are good deals. Complaints about White House insularity are as pronounced as ever.

Critics say the Obamaites deluded themselves in suggesting that they had a mandate from the November election.

“Their campaign strategy was to say Mitt Romney is a rich white guy that doesn’t care about people like you, a vulture capitalist who ships jobs overseas,” says Haley Barbour, the former Republican governor of Mississippi. “Where do you get a mandate from that?”

Some issues, such as ending tax cuts for the wealthy, were debated to Obama’s advantage last fall. But if Republicans don’t feel threatened by Obama on those questions, any mandate is meaningless.

It would then seem reasonable to assume that the Republicans are the beneficiaries of these shortcomings. Wrong.

After losing a presidential election it expected to win, the party had public post-mortems and came to some obvious conclusions: Republicans have a problem with young voters, Hispanics and women, the groups that hold the future of the body politic.

A special panel created by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus cited those concerns, as well as deficiencies in technology and communications, and a perception that the party isn’t inclusive and is “for the rich.” To escape this image as the party of privilege, the report suggested that Republicans attack business malfeasance, corporate welfare and lavish executive-retirement packages.

They’ve made a little progress on the social-cultural matters. The anti-gay marriage rhetoric has tamped down, and a few Republicans, such Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, have switched their position. Other Senate Republicans, notably John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida, are central players in trying to forge a comprehensive immigration-reform package.

“They’ve curbed the racism around immigration and started to stop speaking chiefly to the far right,” says Stephanie Cutter, the deputy Obama campaign manager in 2012.

Still, look for more anti-gay broadsides in Republican primaries next year; that message still appeals to the party’s political base. Even if an immigration bill is successful in the Senate, a majority of Republicans may vote against it; House Republicans are already trying to water down any comprehensive measure.

On economic and business issues, there has been no discernible change.

“They’re doing the same things, like reintroducing the Paul Ryan budget,” Cutter says. They advocate huge tax cuts for the wealthy, and while Obama has made many concessions on cutting entitlements, Republicans won’t budge on taxes.

A telling illustration is the reaction to the proposal for the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies to disclose their political donations, much of which can be hidden from shareholders and voters now. House Republicans, at the behest of corporate interests, are pushing legislation that would prohibit the SEC from requiring this transparency.

Even for those rare issues on which there is some bipartisan agreement — corporate tax reform — the prospects of any action are slim.

Already, only six months after the November referendum and more than a year and a half before the next national elections, leading strategists from both parties privately say that those next contests may be the opportunity to break this impasse.

Yet the more Democrats look at the House, the less optimistic they are. Part of the gloom is caused by the way districts were drawn after Republicans won control in many states in the 2010 election. A larger reason is population patterns; Democrats cluster more heavily in fewer districts.

Republican hopes to take back the Senate — Democrats hold a 55 to 45 majority — looked promising with seven seats held by Democrats in play and a plethora of big-name retirements. Yet those open seats in states such as Iowa, Michigan and Montana look like an uphill climb for Republicans. The best odds now: Republicans will gain several seats, but short of the half-dozen they need for control.

If little changes over the next 18 months, there is one sure outcome: Obama and Republicans will posture for the last two years of this administration, looking for a new message to voters in 2016.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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