Barack Obama may give GOP a taste of their own medicine

With his legacy at stake, US president has choice: block or play role of compromiser

Barack Obama could see the roles played by him and Republicans in the past six years of his presidency reversed for the final two. Photograph: Getty Images

Barack Obama could see the roles played by him and Republicans in the past six years of his presidency reversed for the final two. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Think of the 2015 American political year as the filling in a sandwich, the in-between year separating the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential elections. Expect plenty of meat.

The Democrats and President Barack Obama start the year, licking their wounds after the pummelling they took in the midterm elections.

The GOP carries into 2015 its largest majority in almost a century, taking control of Congress, adding the Senate to their House of Representatives majority. They’re in the driving seat.

Reflecting the level of dissatisfaction with the president, no other executive elected to two terms in the past half-century has lost more seats in Congress than Obama. He has lost a total 69 House and 11 Senate seats in elections while he was in office. Only Bill Clinton lost more Senate seats (12) during his two terms in office.

Facing a Republican-controlled Congress in January, Obama could see the roles played by him and Republicans in the past six years of his presidency reversed for the final two. After accusing Republicans – primarily in the House where they were swayed by hard-right Tea Party conservatives, of obstructionism, the president may face similar accusations by vetoing bills passed by the Republican 114th Congress.

Government shutdown

The ascendant party has, however, ruled out another unpopular government shutdown as a tactic to get their way.

The first skirmish between the White House and Congress is likely to be the Keystone XL pipeline, the 1,179-mile Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that Republicans claim will lead to thousands of jobs.

Incoming Republican majority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, one of the big winners of 2014, has said that the pipeline will be the first bill he plans to schedule for a vote in the new year.

Obama, who dislikes the project, has said he wants to wait for a State Department review of the pipeline, now in its sixth year, before making a decision. The project, which is backed by Republicans and energy-state Democrats, is likely to win enough votes to pass Congress but not to overcome a veto by the president.

With a legacy as a progressive reformer and champion of the middle class and the environment at stake, this will be a sign of whether he will be an obstructionist or a compromiser in his final two years.

The passage of the short-term budget in the so-called lame duck session in December may be the sign of how things will play out more generally in Washington next year.

The $1.1 trillion (€890 billion) omnibus spending bill contained add-ons that Democrats didn’t like (rolling back post-crisis Wall Street rules and increasing political donation limits) and that infuriated Republicans (insufficient measures to block Obama’s immigration orders). But the White House and House Republican leaders joined forces in a compromise to keep the government open, much to anger of liberal Democrats, including Obama ally Nancy Pelosi, the party’s leader in the House, and conservative Republicans.

McConnell and Republican House Speaker John Boehner could use the party’s advantage in Congress to try to win over enough Democrats for legislative measures to overcome a presidential veto or at least to force the president to sign a bill that would stop Republicans portraying him negatively as a roadblock to progress.

“It’s a great formula for Republicans to show that they can get something done in Congress, for stopping Obama playing them off as the party of opposition, the ‘party of no’, the big obstructionists,” said Henry Nau, a politics professor at George Washington University.

This would work well for Republicans in the run-up to 2016, showing the electorate they are a party that can get things done. Such a message could be positively received given that the ‘do-nothing’ 113th Congress made Washington politics even more unpopular than Obama.

Divided government

In a memo ‘How We Did It’ – released publicly by the Republican Party after the midterms – the GOP said the election results were “a rejection of the policies and candidates supported by President Obama and Hillary Clinton”, the latter reference a dig at a person many see as the probable Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2016.

Clinton will be one of the biggest stories of 2015. Six years after being beaten by Obama, the new grandmother is the far-and-away favourite to be the Democratic nominee. Although she has not declared her intention to run, an announcement is expected early in 2015.

Her closest contender, but still way back in the pack, is Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, the liberal populist and bane of the big banks who has so excited the populist Left of the party.

Warren’s denials that she is running in 2016 have weakened recently but given the lead held by the former first lady and secretary of state in the polls (62 versus 12 for Warren and 10 for vice president Joe Biden), the anti-Wall Street crusader will be watched more to see how she pushes Clinton out to the left on policy positions in the campaign.

On the other side, the head-turning declaration by Jeb Bush, the son and younger brother of two presidents, that he was “actively exploring” a bid for the Republican nomination is seen as sending some weaker candidates in a packed GOP field scurrying into the long grass.

To win over voters in a general election, he must step out from the shadow of his brother who left the country mired in two unpopular wars and the more severe financial crisis since the Great Depression. The passage of time since the previous Bush presidents will help him.

Republican electorate

“And, at a minimum, he can distance himself from his brother while still capitalising on the benefits of having a familiar name. We are a long way from 2016 – it’s not inevitable that his brother’s name and reputation would bring his candidacy down.”

Given the level of disillusionment with the country’s political establishment though, the emergence of a fresh newcomer from nowhere – much like Obama did in 2008 – as a challenger to the latest contender from the Clinton-Bush dynasties should not be discounted.

On the Democratic side, Warren’s message has electrified the liberal grassroots, while a Republican governor such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin or Mike Pence in Indiana could emerge as a dark horse.

“It is too early to say that it is more or less wrapped up as an establishment contest between Clinton and Bush,” said Professor Nau.

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