By Liz Sidoti
WASHINGTON (AP) — He wants to take on the expensive Democratic sacred cows of Social Security and Medicare. He has hinted that he might disappoint environmentalists by letting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline be built.
And, to varying degrees, President Barack Obama seems to be going middle-of-the-road on everything from gun control to immigration reform to drone policy, much to the annoyance of many Democratic activists and liberal lawmakers.
It’s all in the spirit of his well-used, Voltaire-inspired quote: “We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It’s also a bow to the reality of getting things done in an era of divided government. And it’s enough to make the most loyal Democrats who twice carried him to the White House shake their heads in amazement and anger, wondering this: Just who does Obama think he is?
This is who: A shrewd politician intent on doing what’s necessary to emerge from his presidency as a transformational figure, beyond the scope of being the nation’s first non-white president, with a legacy of having changed entire pillars of a country in a period of significant change. And he’s a president who sees most Americans telling pollsters that they want leaders to put compromise over party loyalty.
“I see him as trying to deliver on one of his original election promises, to bring people together. This is who Barack Obama is,” said Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who ran for president in 2004 and later was a Democratic Party chairman.
He said Obama “absolutely” seeks a transformational legacy. But he adds: “It has nothing to do with Barack Obama himself. It has everything to do with this new generation that’s transformational and that elected him.”
Less than 100 days into his second term, this is a president no longer hemmed in by the constraints of re-election, namely the constant need to keep the party’s foot soldiers happy to ensure money and manpower for a campaign. This is a pragmatic president who sees one last shot — or, really, 18 months before the midterm congressional elections — to do big things before becoming a lame duck. And this is a gambling president laying down a huge bet that the Republicans who don’t trust him, and the Democrats he’s riling up, will help him put his imprint on American society in significant ways.
He’ll need both. And it won’t be easy.
While Republicans have been involved in the Democratic-run Senate on gun and immigration legislation, Obama faces deep resistance in the GOP-controlled House and only can hope that Speaker John Boehner continues to bring measures to the floor for a vote even if they lack the support of most Republicans.
If that happens, and it’s a big “if,” then Obama would need Democrats to stand with him. But many represent districts packed with the nation’s most liberal voters, and they have little incentive to help him push through policy that doesn’t sit well with the party’s left flank.
Plus, a lot of Democrats on Capitol Hill also don’t feel like they know Obama, much less owe him anything, after helping him get elected twice.
Earned or not, the rap on Obama since he first came to Washington has been that he hasn’t made building the Democratic Party a priority, and it’s an open secret in Washington that Obama doesn’t have much of relationship with congressional Democrats. Party insiders say the president’s outreach to Republicans this year also appears to be pushing Democrats on Capitol Hill even further away.
“Schmoozing the Congress is part of the job, and he’s just not really good at that,” Dean said. “I wasn’t very good at that either.”
All this raises crucial questions: Has Obama built the coalitions necessary to generate support for his agenda? Can someone who is so divisive even do so?
Right now, he is extending cautious offers of compromise to Republicans while avoiding overtly dissing Democrats. It’s a nuanced approach rooted in first-term lessons and reflecting second-term maturity.
In 2009, Obama took office with high expectations set by his own advisers. They talked of a “transformational presidency” filled with big accomplishments to remake society. The president, grappling with a recession and two wars, fell short. He did manage to revamp health care, a significant accomplishment that divided the country.
These days, to rally support for bipartisan solutions, he’s drawing on his experience as a community organizer, using his political operation — Organizing for Action — and the power of the White House to organize voters and lawmakers alike behind his proposals.
And he’s going subtle.
During a recent California fundraiser at the home of a forceful opponent of the Keystone pipeline, Obama didn’t directly mention outcry over the project that would stretch from Canada to Texas. But the point was clear as he talked of the effect of the rising costs of gas on family budgets.
And amid fierce liberal criticism when he unveiled proposals to tackle popular programs created for senior citizens by Democratic presidents, Obama said: “I don’t believe that all these ideas are optimal, but I’m willing to set them as part of a compromise.” He wants deeper cuts to Social Security and Medicare over the next 10 years than Republicans have proposed, although any Obama changes would be paired with tax revenues.
There’s a paradox for the White House to worry about, though. By spurning the party’s left wing on issues such as entitlement programs, Obama runs might be sabotaging exactly what he’s trying to achieve. Congressional Democrats who side with him risk inviting liberal primary challenges and could end up losing their re-election bids, squandering Obama’s chance at absolute Democratic power in the final two years of his presidency.
And even if enough Democrats overlook their fears and back their president, can Obama cajole enough Republicans to side with him?
After agreeing to Obama’s demand for tax increases on the wealthiest Americans this year to avoid a fiscal meltdown, Republicans have little motivation to hand him any other victories.
But Republican opposition also could give Obama an opportunity to paint the GOP as obstructionists, a potentially powerful tool ahead of the 2014 mid-term congressional elections in which Democrats are struggling to win back the House and hang onto power in the Senate.
One-party rule in the final two years of Obama’s presidency, after all, would help him put his stamp on the country, and ensure passage of his legacy issues.
This being Washington, and Obama being Obama, it’s not outside the realm of possibility of that being a fallback plan, if not the plan all along.
Liz Sidoti is the national political editor for The Associated Press.