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Obama is looking irrelevant

By Ramesh Ponnuru
Bloomberg View

President Barack Obama’s second term has so far been a story of high liberal hopes and scant liberal achievements.

The president has been re-elected, demographic trends favor the growth of his coalition, his party has a technological edge, and his opposition is confused and divided. One might therefore expect Obama to be enacting the legislative agenda of that rising coalition. Yet the White House has to be disappointed, whatever it says, by the way the second term has been going.

The president’s poll numbers have been falling since December, for one thing. His average job-approval rating, compiled on Pollster.com, has been below 50 percent for weeks.

And liberal policy gains have been sparse, and mostly unrelated to Obama. His campaign for new gun regulations is fizzling out – and not, primarily, because of opposition from the Republican House or filibuster threats from Republican senators. Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate Democrats, has kept an assault-weapons ban out of the gun bill because it had fewer than 40 supporters. That’s in a chamber that has 55 Democrats. The main gun legislation now under consideration is a proposal for “universal background checks” that is filled with exemptions.

Liberals can celebrate the rapidly increasing support for same-sex marriage. Most of the action on that issue, though, is taking place in state legislatures, referendums and the courts. Obama hasn’t had much to do with it. If the Supreme Court declares traditional marriage laws unconstitutional, it won’t be because the administration has asked for it; it hasn’t.

The main policy achievement that liberals have made since the election was the tax increase at the start of the year, which led some to suggest that Obama had broken Republican opposition to higher taxes. But the most powerful force in that debate was inertia, not Obama: Taxes were already scheduled to rise, and the legislation just limited the increase.

The fiscal fights since then haven’t gone well for the White House. Its scare talk about the sequestration has been quietly abandoned because most Americans aren’t seeing any effect from it in their own lives. Obama wanted to replace some of the sequestration cuts with increased revenue. The bill that Congress passed to fund the government through September instead left the cuts in place and added no revenue. He felt he had to sign it.

Republicans have effectively sidelined him by insisting that future budget bills will come from “regular order” in Congress rather than an extraordinary negotiation with the president. He has also sidelined himself by putting out a budget only after the House and the Senate had passed theirs, and including less deficit reduction than either of them. Obama could end up signing fewer pieces of major legislation in the first year of his second term than did George W. Bush.

There is still a chance of a breakthrough on immigration, although official Washington is overconfident on that issue. There seems to be a tacit agreement among congressional Republicans and Democrats alike that a bill is more likely to pass the less the president is involved in drafting it.

On immigration, the budget and other issues, the president will, of course, have influence: Senate Democrats won’t want to break with him in public. There is, however, essentially no chance that he will veto anything that the Democratic Senate passes, and thus Republicans can safely pay him little attention on many issues.

The president’s widely publicized “charm offensive” may be an attempt to make him relevant again; reading between the lines of some news accounts about it suggests as much. If so, it’s an extraordinary pass for him to reach just weeks into his second term.

Obama’s inability to make the most of what ought to be liberalism’s moment may reflect his weak relationships with lawmakers in both parties and lack of interest in strengthening them. That complaint is often heard on Capitol Hill. Republicans also say they prefer to deal with Vice President Joe Biden, who negotiates, rather than with Obama, who lectures them.

It may also be a result of the geography of Obama’s majority coalition. His voters are concentrated in major metropolitan areas. Even if the last round of gerrymandering hadn’t favored the Republicans, it would be hard to assemble a House majority from Obama’s voters. The Democratic majority in the Senate, meanwhile, exists only because it includes candidates elected in more conservative states that voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. That’s why the Senate is debating such weak gun legislation, and why it isn’t debating climate-change legislation at all.

Obama outlined an ambitious liberal vision in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses this year. It doesn’t look like he’s going to do much to advance it.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.
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